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A Space Odyssey

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

It was more than 40 years ago when Danny Reed passed by a GMAC lot in Austin, Texas, and felt the thrill of his life. A 1969 gold Corvette Stingray with black accents and 28,000 miles on the odometer sat among the rows of otherwise mundane machines. Reed instantly knew what it was, but he also knew exactly where to look to prove that he was right. A rectangular plaque divided into squares of red, white, and blue was fashioned above the word Stingray on the car’s fender, and stenciled on the blue square were the letters LMP, which stood for lunar module pilot. That meant that the car had once belonged to Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon.

As a space program enthusiast and a self-proclaimed “car nut,” Reed had saved an issue of Life magazine that depicted the crew of Apollo 12—command module pilot Richard “Dick” Gordon, mission commander Charles “Pete” Conrad, and Bean—dressed in their blue flight suits and seated atop the roofs of their matching gold-and-black Corvettes. The crew availed themselves of an astronaut lease program created by Indy 500 victor and Chevrolet-Cadillac dealer Jim Rathmann, which let them enjoy their cars for one dollar per year. After the leases expired, Bean returned his automobile; and by some stroke of luck, Reed happened upon the vehicle on the car lot.

Mustering his best poker face, Reed asked a salesman about the situation with the car and was told that the dealership was accepting closed offers and would sell it to the highest bidder. Reed offered $3,230, slightly more than its wholesale value, but the sum only secured his status as the underbidder. Weeks later, the dealership informed him that the winner, who initially offered $13,000 for the car, hadn’t come through, which meant the vehicle belonged to Reed. The Austin resident drove his prize home in August 1971, and since then, he’s subjected it to a careful and sensitive restoration—the Corvette’s parts, right down to the shocks, remain largely original. Reed has reunited Bean with his car several times; he has shown it at several Corvette events, NASA functions, and other space-themed occasions; and in 42 years, he’s driven it only 6,000 miles. “The car has a better life than I do,” Reed jokes.

The tale of the Apollo 12 Corvettes illustrates just how strange a time the 1960s and early 1970s were, not only for collectibles but for the very notion of what was deemed to be a collectible. Rathmann, who died in 2011, was savvy enough to create the astronaut lease program and savvy enough to deliver the trio of custom-painted cars to the Apollo 12 crew, but he was not savvy enough, it seems, to hang on to the cars once those leases expired. Reed knows the VIN numbers for the two sister Corvettes and has searched for them for four decades, but in all that time, neither one has been registered in any of the 50 states. “I really think they would have shown up by now because of the publicity [my car] has gotten,” Reed says. “It appears mine’s the only one that’s left.”

While Alan Bean’s 1969 Corvette never traveled beyond Earth’s atmosphere, it exemplifies the popularity of and demand for items associated with man’s early explorations into space. Though many artifacts have been preserved since the United States and the Soviet Union first experimented with manned (and unmanned) spaceflights, there are more that have yet to reach the collector’s market. From museum contracts to government lawsuits, the relatively brief history of collecting space-exploration memorabilia is cloaked in controversy. While it’s safe to say that the items associated with man’s earliest missions into space will remain collectible, it remains a mystery as to which blue-chip pieces will come up for sale next.

Almost two decades ago, Alan Lipkin, a senior vice president and the space memorabilia expert at Regency-Superior Auctions in Los Angeles, brokered the sale of a Mercury program–era space suit that was preserved by an unlikely hero. “A janitor [for one of the space program’s contractors in Ohio] picked it out of the garbage and asked if he could have it for his kid as a Halloween costume,” Lipkin recalls, adding that after it had served its noncelestial purpose, “he brought it to us, and got six figures for it.”

NASA and the Smithsonian have an agreement that grants the national museum first dibs on material; however, NASA has generated heaps of cast-off gear, equipment, and other artifacts that would cost taxpayers far more to warehouse than to release. For that reason, NASA has relinquished extraneous items throughout its history, including Apollo-era
artifacts, which the space agency yielded as recently as four years ago. For example, the headset that lunar module pilot Jim Irwin wore while on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission initially was reused for Skylab training but later sold through a General Services Administration (GSA) auction in 2010. That same headset crossed the block during an RR Auction sale in November and changed hands for $36,400.

Robert Pearlman, the founder and editor of collectspace
.com, focuses his collection on the space shuttle era. Artifacts from those missions are not as valuable as those from earlier NASA programs, but they’re still collectible, which comes as a surprise to some retired astronauts. “Shuttle astronauts don’t get to keep a lot,” Pearlman says. “They can keep their hygiene kits and literally the shirts off their backs. A lot of them treat the shirts as having absolutely no value, and would wear them around the house.”

Pearlman owns a stained, NASA-issued rugby shirt that once belonged to Terence “Tom” Henricks, a commander of two shuttle missions and the pilot for two others. “I can pull out a picture that shows him wearing the shirt,” Pearlman says. “Henricks told me, ‘If I knew how much it was worth, I wouldn’t have used it to paint my house.’”

Space memorabilia of a more traditional nature—autographs, medallions, and stamped rocket-flown envelopes, known as covers—abound on the market, and the best examples command strong prices. But the things that helped the astronauts reach the moon and come home safely are what hold special power for collectors and are the artifacts that climb into the six-figure realm at auction.

An Apollo 11 lunar surface star chart (inscribed by Buzz Aldrin), for example, is one of the most valuable space collectibles sold by Bonhams. Neil Armstrong and Aldrin relied on the circular plastic tool to determine their precise position while on the moon’s surface, which led to its sale for $218,000 in 2009. An unflown and unusually complete Gemini-era space suit, circa 1963, which included a helmet, gloves, and boots, set Regency-Superior’s house record of $160,000 in 2010. Markings on the inside of the left sleeve indicate that the suit was created for the late Alan Shepard—the first American to travel into space—while the gloves were sized to fit Virgil “Gus” Grissom, who later died in the Apollo 1 accident. Heritage set its house record in 2007, when a set of Aldrin’s handwritten notes from the Apollo 11 mission exchanged hands for $179,250. As a Presbyterian, Aldrin chose to celebrate and give thanks for the mission’s accomplishment by, as he declared, “partaking in the elements of Holy Communion” on the surface of the moon, which is chronicled in those notes.

RR Auction surpassed all of those prices when it auctioned an extravehicular activity cuff checklist—a document that contained detailed instructions that Apollo 15 commander David Scott referenced during the six and a half hours he spent driving the lunar roving vehicle on the moon in 1971. It sold for $364,452. The world record for a piece of space memorabilia, however, has no ties to NASA. In 2011, a flown Vostok 3KA-2 space capsule (similar to the one that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rode in when he became the first human being in space) crossed the block during a Sotheby’s auction in New York and sold for $2.9 million.

Until recently, some folks at NASA struggled to understand the impulse that would drive someone to pay significant amounts of money for mundane artifacts from historic missions, like the toothbrush that Aldrin used aboard Apollo 11, which Heritage Auctions sold for $22,705 in April 2013. The first stirrings of trouble occurred in 2011—almost 20 years after Superior Auctions hosted the first dedicated space memorabilia sale.Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Edgar Mitchell consigned to Bonhams a 16 mm camera that spent 33 hours on the moon’s surface, but the government sued for its return and settled after Mitchell agreed to relinquish the camera, which Bonhams had estimated to sell for $60,000 to $80,000.

In November 2011, Heritage offered a lunar module activation checklist that Jim Lovell used while aboard Apollo 13, the infamously harrowing lunar flight turned rescue mission. A replica of the checklist appeared in a key scene of the Ron Howard–directed film Apollo 13, which no doubt influenced the winning bid of $388,375. The sale would have set a Heritage house record for space material, but NASA stepped in, questioning Lovell’s ownership of the checklist. The inquiry prompted Heritage to place the artifact into storage until the issue was resolved.

NASA officials met with Apollo astronauts Lovell, Rusty Schweickart, Gene Cernan, and Charlie Duke in January 2012 to discuss the matter, with the upshot that all of the material that the astronauts had received for their missions remained government property. Because no paperwork existed that formally transferred ownership from the government to the astronauts, the only recourse for the astronauts was to ask Congress to pass a law to that effect. In September 2012, President Obama signed a bill declaring that the astronauts who participated in NASA programs from Mercury (1959) to Apollo-Soyuz (1975) were the rightful owners of the artifacts that came into their possession. “If anyone is wondering if Congress ever works, it does,” says Howard C. Weinberger, the senior space consultant at Heritage. “By law, all the items that the astronauts ever claimed [to be theirs], are theirs.”

When the law passed, Massachusetts native Lawrence McGlynn uncorked a bottle of Champagne and celebrated. The 60-year-old collector has dedicated most of his life to assembling a world-class space memorabilia collection that includes everything from timepieces used on the surface of the moon to a wide array of tools and equipment used over the course of those lunar missions. But when complications arose following that 2011 auction of Jim Lovell’s artifacts, McGlynn surveyed the numerous pieces of astronaut memorabilia on display in his home and feared that the items were not only worthless, but also vulnerable to being reclaimed by the government.

Though it is welcomed by collectors, the new law comes at a curious time, since the astronauts who were with NASA during its glory days are no longer the main sources for the material that enters the market today. Collectors now fill that role. The law also fails to cover astronauts who served in the space shuttle program, or members of the NASA ground crew. “After 1986 [prompted by the Challenger disaster], NASA clamped down and didn’t let anything out, and they’re not going to let anything out in the future,” McGlynn says, suggesting that the only artifacts that will be made available to collectors are those associated with the infancy of human space travel.

The recently passed law protects virtually all of McGlynn’s collection, which includes some unusual items. His bathroom is decorated with the personal toiletries kit used by Skylab 2 pilot Paul Weitz, and McGlynn half-jokingly claims that he plans to assemble a set of space food and cutlery for display in his kitchen.

The collector owns more conventional collectibles too, including an Apollo 11–flown flag inscribed by Aldrin, and original space art, including a canvas by Bean, who devoted himself to painting depictions of lunar adventures after he retired from NASA. “I was once called the black hole of space collecting,” McGlynn remarks, commenting on his omnivorous appetite for material. “I’m not going to the moon, but I can bring the moon to me.” 

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Courtesy of Shakespeare and Company - Paul Foster Books - the NY Antiquarian Book Fair
Photo courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery, New York; Li Hongbo