An artifact that was used during the historic Apollo 11 lunar mission, the first manned mission to land on the moon, is now at the center of a legal dispute.
A bag that was brought along by astronauts aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft when they flew to the moon in June 1969 and was used to collect the first sample of lunar materials is at the center of a legal battle after the United States government mistakenly sold it.
The bag was collected during an investigation on a criminal case filed against former director of Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center Max Ary.
The Cosmosphere discovered irregularities during an internal inventory in the fall of 2003. Further investigations eventually revealed that some items were removed from the museum's collection and were improperly sold leading to the filing of a criminal case against Ary.
During the trial, investigators learned that hundreds of space artifacts and memorabilia were missing, some of which were on loan from NASA. One of these items was the lunar bag that was found in a box stored in Ary's garage during an official search conducted in 2003.
Ary was tried and convicted in November 2005 for stealing and selling museum artifacts. Federal indictment claimed that he made around $180,000 for selling prized items which include an astronaut's in-flight T-shirt, an Air Force One control panel, Apollo 12 water valve and the nose of a rocket.
In 2015, a decade after Ary's conviction, the bag was accidentally sold to Illinois resident Nancy Carlson at a government auction. Carlson bought the bag for $995 and shipped the item to the U.S. space agency's Johnson Space Center to be authenticated.
NASA, which was neither notified nor gave permission to sell the Apollo 11 bag, withheld the bag prompting Carlson to sue the agency in June in a federal court demanding the return of the bag.
Federal prosecutors want the federal judge who handled the criminal case of Ary to rescind the sale and refund the money Carlson spent on the bag.
Officials said that the confusion happened because of an internal clerical error. Two separate lunar bags, in which one was a sample bag used in the 1972 Apollo 11 lunar mission, were assigned the same identification number. Ary auctioned the 1972 sample bag in 2001 for $24,150 but it was later recovered by investigators.
Ary is now a free man but he maintained he is innocent, claiming that he accidentally mixed up the artifacts of the museum with those in his private collection.