After winning fight with NASA, Inverness woman ponders what to do with a bag of moon dust

Nancy Lee Carlson has been getting 400 to 500 emails a day, she says, from people who want to see or buy her rare bag of moon dust.

Awarded the bag from NASA after a yearlong court fight, Carlson, from northwest suburban Inverness, says strangers have even come knocking at her door to see the bag, which was used to store moon rocks collected by Apollo 11 astronauts.

She hasn't decided what she's going to do with it, she said, but she certainly doesn't have it at home. The bag is now kept by a security firm in a remote location she says is unknown even to her.

She had previously kept the bag in her bedroom closet and said she intended to show it at schools and bequeath it to her grandchildren, but she says with the publicity over the case that's not practical now.

"I'm thrilled we won," she said. "This is like the Holy Grail." But, she added, "I'm trying to be as anonymous as possible."

The bag in question is the size of a dinner plate, made of cloth similar to that used in astronaut suits, has a zipper and a rip in the fabric, and contains dark dust that NASA verified is from the moon.

Carlson, a corporate and real estate attorney and a former board member at Community Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine, bought the bag for $995 in 2015 on a government website, www.forfeiture.gov. She sent it to NASA to verify its authenticity, and when tests showed it was legitimate, officials refused to return it, saying it was rightfully the space agency's property, since they had originally obtained it and weren't aware of its sale.

Previously, the bag had been in the possession of Max Ary, who ran the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchison, Kan., and was convicted of theft in 2006 for taking and selling items from the museum, some of which were on loan from NASA.

Federal government attorneys obtained a court order to sell some of the items recovered from Ary to pay restitution. The bag was confused with another bag that had been flown to the moon on Apollo 17 and was mistakenly sold to Carlson by auction, government attorneys said.

Carlson said she has gotten complaints that she shouldn't keep to herself a national treasure for which astronauts risked their lives. She believes she obtained the bag fairly and legally, but she was open to the idea of sharing it publicly.

"Like all children born in the '50s and '60s or '70s, I've always been interested in space, since I was a kid," she said. "This (moon landing) is what we watched on TV. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world — when man finally left Earth."

She said it will take a couple of weeks for her to decide what to do with the bag.

"Hopefully it will be for the greater good of everyone," she said.

Officials at the Adler Planetarium and Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago said they would be open to taking the bag, but they would have to consider how it would fit into their collections. The planetarium already has a moon rock on display, and lunar meteorites, from chunks of the moon that fell to Earth, as well as meteorite dust.

The museum's Henry Crown Space Center displays the Apollo 8 module and the Aurora 7 capsule, among many other exhibits.

Michelle Nichols, the master educator at Adler, said she wasn't sure how unique the bag was, since bags were commonly used for storing samples, but said, "I find it pretty fascinating, because it gives you a sense of the scientific process. By itself it doesn't tell the whole story, but with other things, it becomes part of a science and engineering story."

rmccoppin@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertMcCoppin

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