A Space Odyssey

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

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.

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