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Forgotten Apollo moon artifacts found in Neil Armstrong's closet

A hidden treasure trove of gear flown on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon sees the light of day after Neil Armstrong's widow shares the find with the Smithsonian.

Armstrong camera
This camera helped record the historic first moon landing.Photo by Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon when he traveled 240,000 miles on NASA's Apollo 11 mission in 1969. He passed away in 2012, but left behind a legacy full of space, adventure and scientific inspiration. He also left behind a wealth of physical materials related to his travels. A purse full of rare artifacts is now in the spotlight as the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum shares details of a hidden piece of space history.

The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, a NASA archive dedicated to preserving and sharing information about NASA's moon missions, has a page dedicated to a white cloth bag that Carol Armstrong, the astronaut's widow, found in a closet after his death.

The contents of the bag are on loan to the Smithsonian. The white cloth container was immediately identifiable as a Temporary Stowage Bag, also called a McDivitt Purse by astronauts. It was designed to attach inside the Lunar Module. It opens at the top like a clutch purse or an old-time doctor's bag. The bag contained useful items including a camera, waist tether, light bulb assembly, helmet tie-down strap, netting, a mirror and an emergency wrench.

Part of what makes these items so exciting is that they were flown on the Apollo 11 Lunar Module known as the Eagle. When the astronauts returned to Earth, they left the Eagle behind. Eventually, the module's orbit decayed and it was destroyed on impact with the moon.

It took a team of experts to sleuth out whether or not the items were actually flown on the module. "The ALSJ experts were able to determine with almost complete certainty that all of the items were indeed from the Eagle," writes Allan Needell, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in a blog post describing the find.

Transcripts from the mission refer to the bag, so it was known that the contents were returning to Earth with the crew. Armstrong called it "just a bunch of trash that we want to take back." Since then, Needell notes, "As far as we know, Neil has never discussed the existence of these items and no one else has seen them in the 45 years since he returned from the Moon."

The data acquisition camera and waist tether from the Eagle are on display as part of a temporary exhibit called Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The Smithsonian is in the process of documenting the rest of artifacts and may, at some point, put them on public display.

In 1969, three men helped to chart a new course in space history for humanity. Back then, the Lunar Module items might have seemed like a bunch of trash, but the Apollo 11 crew bothered to bring them back home to Earth. All these decades later, they stand as a reminder of the ingenuity and effort that took people all the way to surface of the moon.