For Sale: Space Suit, Never Worn

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Everybody at the Sotheby’s space memorabilia auction last Thursday knew they were part of something important. “I told my wife that I thought the moon landing was the greatest achievement of the 20th century,” said one man, bidding on behalf of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. “She responded, ‘No, it’s the greatest achievement in human history.’”

The room was packed full of buyers, with even more bidding on the computer and over the phone. Sotheby’s associates clustered on desks at the edges of the room pressed receivers to their ears like mission control technicians. “Houston, we have a bidder,” you almost expected one of them to say.

The bidders were excited for good reason. For the first (and possibly last) time, rarely seen items from mankind’s greatest triumph were available for purchase. Although it wasn’t the first Sotheby’s space auction—there were similar sales of mostly Soviet memorabilia in 1995 and 2003—it was the first one held since the passage of H.R. 4158, a 2012 act of Congress granting astronauts full ownership of items from their missions. More importantly, that bill also allowed astronauts to sell those items, finally legitimizing American space collecting.

All of which meant that this auction was the first time that many people had seen such a wide array of Apollo Program artifacts. Although not all of them were thrilling—some, like a memo on camera use in space, couldn’t have been interesting to more than one or two hardcore collectors—the more exciting items were unlike anything the auction house has ever sold. Among these big ticket items were the bag Neil Armstrong used to transport moon rocks back to Earth, its insides still coated with lunar dust, and a copy of the Apollo 13 Flight Plan, with annotations by pilots Lovell, Swigert and Haise explaining the deviations they were forced to make. There were plenty of items unrelated to the moon landings, too. Also on the auction block were memorabilia from the Soviet space program—including the official records file on Yuri Gagarin’s first flight—and from the earlier American Mercury and Gemini Projects, as well photographs and paintings of space predating those programs by decades.

Still, even a NASA scientist would have had trouble predicting what would and wouldn’t sell. A picture of the lunar crater Aristarchus, for instance, taken by a lunar orbiter in 1967 and expected to fetch as much as $125,000, failed to find a buyer. The Soviet records file of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight—estimated to go for as much as $80,000—only went for $47,000. The lunar bag, expected to go for $2-to-$4 million, sold for barely more than its reserve price, at a surprisingly meager $1.8 million. Its sale felt like a pledge drive, the auctioneer bartering with a potential buyer over the phone. “Will he try 1.3?” he pleaded to the associate. “He asks if you’ll take 1.25,” she responded.

It wasn’t all lunar doom and gloom, though. Some items handily beat their expected prices. Nearly every photo of the astronauts on the lunar surface sold extremely well. A photo of Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke, for instance, expected to go for $1,500-2,500, ultimately sold for over $37,00. And the Apollo 13 flight plan exceeded its $30,000-40,000 estimate, going instead for an ungodly $275,000.

Still, the biggest surprise of all was the robust performance of Chesley Bonestell’s romantic paintings of space. Bonestell, the “Father of Space Art”, painted fanciful imaginings of Space from the ‘40s up to his death in 1986, including views of Saturn from its moons and of astronauts exploring our moon (a considerably more exotic concept in 1957). His 1955 illustration, “The Exploration of Mars,” shattered all expectations, surpassing its $8-10,000 estimate to sell for a whopping $125,000. Depicting two astronauts marveling at a crumbling classical-looking temple in the Martian desert, the painting manages to be hokey yet strangely compelling, the decaying, Ozymandian grandeur of the scene eerily out of place on the dusty red planet. It’s easy to see the kernels of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien in it.

Bonestell’s art was more than just sci-fi concept art; it was published in widely-read magazines like Life, and helped prime the public for a spacefaring future. A 1954 Colliers story, “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!”, featuring Bonestell’s renderings of leading scientists’ ideas for manned space explorations, was one of the first serious depictions of manned space exploration. While paintings of orbiting, 2001-like centrifuges seem like fantasy today, they captured America’s imagination, giving space travel a righteous, utopian bent.

And in the ‘60s, as things down on Earth turned toward chaos, people needed a little utopian righteousness. There’s a famous, possibly apocryphal story that after Apollo 8 orbited the moon, Jim Lovell received a telegram from a stranger that said, simply, “Thank you for saving 1968.” For one brief, shining moment, this planet’s petty problems seemed like they could be transcended.

The previous two Sotheby’s auctions took place at moments of optimism and nationalism, respectively—the first in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, at the end of history; the second at the height of Iraq War-era jingoism. This auction comes at an uncertain time, when the fate of our nation and planet seem to hang in the balance in new ways. It’s no surprise that what sold best last week were the myths—the photos of the men in space, starry-eyed imaginings of distant worlds, the documents of heroic disasters averted.

Given the success of those Apollo missions, it’s easy to forget just how dangerous they were. Apollo 1 burst into flames, killing its crew before it had even left the ground. Equally morbid was the presence of multiple signed postcards in the auction; as Aldrin writes in his provenance letter for one, “Since we were unable to obtain adequate life insurance due to the high risk nature of being an astronaut, we signed this group of covers and evenly distributed them to our families for safe keeping while we performed our mission. If an unfortunate event prevented our safe return, the covers would have provided a limited financial means of support to our families.”

Even Apollo 11’s success was far from assured. In 1969, Nixon speechwriter William Safire wrote a contingency speech for the President to deliver if the astronauts were unable to return home. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” he wrote. “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

Fortunately, the world never had to hear that the Moon had become a giant floating tomb. Yet that never-delivered speech still has something to tell us. Even in the depths of what surely would have been one of the grimmest days in American history, President Nixon would have still spoken optimistically toward the future, and reiterated the necessity of exploring space. “In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations,” he would have said, doing his best to reassure the nation. “In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.”

A human hasn’t walked on the moon since 1972. As the landings recede deeper and deeper into the past, it seems clear that the astronauts—those jock scientists who slipped the bounds of Earth through nothing more than their ingenuity and grit alone—have turned into flesh and blood heroes.

So it’s unsurprising that the lunar bag went for less than expected. Reliquaries are all well and good for holy men and miracle workers, but they’re ill-suited for men like Armstrong, Aldrin and all the others. There’s no leap of faith to believe that these astronauts walked on the face of the moon. It really happened. The only pieces of space memorabilia we really need are the ones above our heads.


All photos courtesy of Sotheby’s.


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