Space $ouvenirs

Collectors compete for artifacts from the Apollo program.

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An x-ray of the boots Neil Armstrong wore on the moon, taken before the launch of Apollo 11, is now in private hands.

Neil Armstrong is dead, but you can buy his breath on eBay. For the price of a used car, you can own five tiny bottles of water drained from the returning modules of Apollo 11 and 12, including one of condensation from astronauts’ exhalations. It’s the one marked “Waste Tank.”

Now, anyone with money to spend and an Internet connection can join the ranks of collectors of early space program artifacts. Robert Pearlman’s website collectSPACE is especially useful, keeping tabs on what’s for sale where and helping ferret out frauds on auction house websites. You can ask fellow collectors/historians for guidance, and hear from those who used­—or made—your object.

The same Internet that makes it easier to acquire rare objects also enables longtime collectors to share their treasures with the public, in digital closeup. A thorny legal question—Can you own bits of spacecraft NASA never formally de-accessioned?—has been resolved by a 2012 law in which Congress, perhaps reluctant to increase NASA’s legal budget, allowed Apollo-era astronauts to sell objects they kept as mementos.

The way the market has exploded frustrates longtime collectors like Richard Jurek, co-author (with fellow Apollo ephemera pack rat David Meerman Scott) of the book Marketing the Moon, and the proprietor of the website Jefferson Space Museum (jeffersonspacemuseum.com), where he shows off his collection of space-flown $2 bills. In the two decades he’s been chasing Apollo artifacts, he’s seen prices jump into the stratosphere.

But perhaps there’s an upside: More money means more attention, more objects getting dug out of basements and examined seriously, more research, and more history collected. To wit:

Buzz Aldrin's Comfort Glove, Apollo 11

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(Courtesy Steve Jurvetson)

Comfort gloves, custom-made for each astronaut using plaster casts of their hands, were an optional layer designed to protect bare skin inside the larger spacesuit gloves. They wicked moisture, provided warmth, and prevented chafing.

Whether Buzz Aldrin opted to protect his hands from chafing is a matter of some controversy. The certificate of authenticity Aldrin provided when he first parted with the glove in 1993 says that it was “worn on the moon at Tranquility Base.” But in the Apollo 11 oral debriefing, a post-mission interview evaluating the effectiveness of NASA gear, Aldrin and Neil Armstrong both said they had “elected not” to wear the gloves on the moon.

This conundrum illustrates the vagaries of collecting historic objects: The difference between a glove a man wore inside his airtight spacesuit as he walked on the moon and a glove he wore inside his spacesuit at other times isn’t measurable or observable. But it makes a planetoid of difference to collectors like Steve Jurvetson, who owns the glove. A partner at the venture capital firm DFJ, he displays his collection in his Menlo Park, California office, where he welcomes up to 5,000 visitors a year—some of them fellow business leaders; others, students or Boy/Girl Scouts who make organized visits. High-quality photos of his Apollo items can be found on his flickr page.

Columbia Handle, Apollo 11

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(Courtesy Steve Jurvetson)

The command module Columbia, carrying the first men to walk on the moon, splashed down on July 24, 1969. After a brief tour of U.S. cities, Columbia found its forever home at the National Air and Space Museum.

But not all of the display module actually flew in space. The handles on the outside were removed in 1970 because they were made with little discs of radioactive promethium-147, enabling them to glow in case of emergency. This would be a little too authentic for the safety of museum visitors, so the handles were replaced. Charles Barnes, a radiologic health officer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, offered to study the effects of the radioactive material over 10 years for free—if he could keep the handle afterward. When he put it up for auction in 2000, NASA and the Museum were surprised, but allowed the transaction to go through.

Steve Jurvetson says this is the only piece of the Apollo 11 command module outside the Smithsonian. When he tests it in the darkness of his office bathroom, it still glows.

Hasselblad Camera, Mercury-Atlas 8 and 9

Mercury 8’s Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, allegedly bought this 500C off the shelf from a camera shop in Houston before bringing it aboard Mercury 8 and making it the first professional-grade camera in space. According to his notes, Gordon Cooper brought a camera on Mercury 9 that had flown on Mercury 8. RR Auctions, which handled the sale of the camera last year, confirmed that its Zeiss lens flew on both missions, and the film magazine flew on Mercury 9; it certified that the camera body had flown on Mercury 8 but was unwilling to claim it had been along on Mercury 9 too. “Used by me to obtain a number of good shots,” Cooper wrote for authentication—on his Mickey Mouse stationery. Hasselblads flew on every Apollo mission and on every space shuttle mission.

Apollo Command Module Panel, Apollo 1 Design

Apollo 1 mission pilot Roger Chaffee and backup pilot Rusty Schweickart probably trained with this instrument panel model, now in Jurvetson’s collection. The panel is identical to the one in the command module that caught on fire while the Apollo 1 astronauts rehearsed in it. The block with round gauges monitored and controlled the power system. After the fire, which was attributed to faulty wiring, the power block design was altered. Schweickart piloted the lunar module on Apollo 9, spacewalking back to the command module to ensure it could be done even if something went wrong with the docking.

Lunar Orbit EVA Cue Card, Apollo 17

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(Courtesy Richard Jurek)

This checklist, which was stuck to an instrument panel inside the Apollo 17 command module (note the Velcro fixtures), details the immediate preparations for CM pilot Ron Evans’ December 17, 1972 spacewalk. Most of the instructions are for physical actions (“Don helmet, lock”) and thus easy for laypersons to decipher. Evans went out to retrieve canisters of film from the mapping and panoramic cameras in the scientific instrument module bay, which had been photographing the moon from 70 miles up. The 67-minute excursion was the last extravehicular activity (EVA) of the Apollo program. It was during this mission that the famous “blue marble” photograph of Earth was taken, but by one of the crew from the interior of the craft. Jurek got the card from Gene Cernan, last man to walk on the moon.

Potato Soup, Apollo 13

The Apollo meal program was a long experiment in balancing ease of transport with astronauts’ nutritional and psychological needs. Dehydrating astronauts’ food solved a weight problem: Water is heavy. The water used to reconstitute the food was created as a byproduct of the fuel cells, so no extra had to be carried. Connect a water gun to the nozzle, knead the package for a few minutes, and voilà: somewhat-recognizable nourishment. The first few missions’ reconstituted meals were primarily mush to be squeezed from a tube into the mouth, Fla-Vor-Ice style. This soup is an example of a later refinement, the spoon-bowl package. The top (opposite the water nozzle) would be cut off, enabling the astronaut to eat with a spoon like a human being. Seafood was surprisingly popular; Apollo 17 crew members got lobster bisque, though apparently as an appetizer for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Because of the technological problems that befell their mission, the Apollo 13 astronauts endured strict water rations—six ounces per day—which they supplemented with juices and wet-pack food that did not need to be reconstituted. So the dehydrated soup was left over. Commander Jim Lovell returned to Earth 14 pounds lighter.

The Museum has its own bag of potato soup, from Apollo 11, though it is currently on loan. Jurvetson paid $8,000 at auction for this bag. Who’s hungry?

The Apollo meal program was a long experiment in balancing ease of transport with astronauts’ nutritional and psychological needs. Dehydrating astronauts’ food solved a weight problem: Water is heavy. The water used to reconstitute the food was created as a byproduct of the fuel cells, so no extra had to be carried. Connect a water gun to the nozzle, knead the package for a few minutes, and voilà: somewhat-recognizable nourishment. The first few missions’ reconstituted meals were primarily mush to be squeezed from a tube into the mouth, Fla-Vor-Ice style. This soup is an example of a later refinement, the spoon-bowl package. The top (opposite the water nozzle) would be cut off, enabling the astronaut to eat with a spoon like a human being. Seafood was surprisingly popular; Apollo 17 crew members got lobster bisque, though apparently as an appetizer for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Because of the technological problems that befell their mission, the Apollo 13 astronauts endured strict water rations—six ounces per day—which they supplemented with juices and wet-pack food that did not need to be reconstituted. So the dehydrated soup was left over. Commander Jim Lovell returned to Earth 14 pounds lighter.

The Museum has its own bag of potato soup, from Apollo 11, though it is currently on loan. Jurvetson paid $8,000 at auction for this bag. Who’s hungry?

X-Ray of Neil Armstrong's Boots, Apollo 11

(Courtesy Steve Jurvetson)

Before Apollo 11 launched, NASA needed to be absolutely certain no extraneous objects, left over from manufacture or storage, remained in Neil Armstrong’s moon boots. The X-ray (now in Jurvetson’s collection) established they were clean. Though the image was made for entirely pragmatic reasons, engineering practicality created something beautiful.

Lunar Rover Map, Apollo 17

The last men to walk on the moon used this map in the lunar rover to find something nobody was expecting: patches of orange soil among the dark gray dust of crater Shorty. (The orange was vivid enough that even pilot Ron Evans could see it from the orbiting Command Module.) In the mission transcript, an incredulous Commander Gene Cernan asks, “How can there be orange soil on the moon?” Answer: Shorty is an impact crater, and the impact uncovered a layer of volcanic glass. Luckily, the mission included Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the only geologist to be sent to the moon. He reacted to the discovery “like a boy at Christmas,” recalled CAPCOM Robert Parker. The map belongs to Jim Ruddy, who runs the website Moon Collector.

Flight Director Attitude Indicator "8 Ball," Apollo 1

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(Courtesy Steve Jurvetson)

Heritage Auctions certifies this “8 ball,” used to measure the spacecraft’s location in three dimensions, as “training used,” but due to the Apollo 1 fire, this design never flew in space. It’s modeled after a device used in World War II fighters, one very familiar to most Apollo-era astronauts. It’s Jurvetson’s now.

Rachel Manteuffel writes for the Washington Post and Washingtonian.