Houston, we have a sale.
On July 20, the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the New York auction house Bonhams is selling almost 300 celestial items in its eighth annual Space History Sale. The event will feature pieces from the beginning of the space race through the end of the Cold War era.
The artifacts come from both American and Soviet endeavors, including items used on the multiple Apollo and Soyuz missions.
“What makes any piece of space history valuable is that it’s a tangible piece of what has been one of humanity’s best efforts,” says Robert Pearlman, founder and editor of the online community collectSPACE. “These artifacts are the remnants and testimonies of one of the greatest endeavors ever undertaken.”
Pearlman started his personal collection in the 1990s. It morphed from a box packed with space memorabilia into a passion that now takes up his home. A space shuttle hatch inhabits his living room alongside astronaut flight suits, dehydrated food packets, and parachute shreds from space capsules.
Since the space race only started in 1957, space memorabilia is a relatively new collecting field, says Cassandra Hatton, Bonhams' director of the history of science and technology. Compared to the centuries’ worth of fine art and antiques that the auction house also sells, the space program has only been active for about six decades.
And until recently, some mementos in astronauts’ collections were still considered government property.
But more space memorabilia has been emerging in the last five to 10 years, says Chris Orwoll, executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Space History. As prices for these artifacts go up, astronauts, technicians, and collectors are motivated to sell space to the public.
For this year’s auction, highlights include the following:
- A control trainer used to prep astronauts for the Gemini space program, the precursor to Apollo
- Plaster casts of the right hands of 15 NASA astronauts that were used to customize their space suit gloves
- A Russian-made space suit worn by American flight engineer Don Pettit
- An Apollo 11 navigational chart signed by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon
Putting a Price on History
Bonhams’ price estimates can range from less than $200 to around $90,000. These ranges are based on the sales of similar pieces that have been auctioned off in the past, as well as an artifact’s rarity and condition.
Hatton says moon-dusted items are the most coveted.
“Anything that’s flown [in space] is going to be valuable,” she says. “The closer it gets to the surface of the moon, the more valuable it’s going to be.”
The flown Russian space suit, which is estimated to sell for between $25,000 to $35,000, embodies Soviet-U.S. relations at the time, according to Pearlman.
“Here, you have two Cold War enemies who have come together to establish the International Space Station,” he says. “It’s sort of, all in one piece, a summary of the last 50-plus years of spaceflight.”
Items like the 15 hand casts, which are painted gold and mounted on plaques, have never been sold at an auction before, Hatton says, so it’s up to the buyers to decide their value.
“That’s kind of the perfect item for auction,” she says.
Not all the valuable items are so grandiose. Francis French, a space historian at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, is most excited about a piece of paper: a checklist that was used during the Apollo 11 mission.
The list shows a series of boxes and dots illustrating the lunar module’s final circuit breaker configuration before it touched the moon. A note from Buzz Aldrin, along with his signature, is scrawled in blue ink across the top of the page.
“Sometimes there are obvious big items, but sometimes it’s just a piece of paper like that that chronicles a certain moment,” French says.
And the market for these items spans the globe. Many space fanatics are in the United States, but Europe and Australia also have hot spots. And while most collectors are middle-aged, Pearlman says, interest in the field has no age limit.
“The hobby itself spans everything from kids to senior citizens from different economic and social settings,” Pearlman says. “Universally, I think everyone has a general fascination for spaceflight.”
Crucially, collectors are just as interested in the history, missions, and ongoing pursuit of space travel as they are in the physical objects.
“All them share this passion and desire to see humanity extend out into the solar system and beyond,” Pearlman says. “We explore, we go beyond boundaries. It feels like being on the edge of that future that we may not live to see where it goes, but we can see the beginnings of it, and we can literally touch the pieces that make that possible.”
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