Where once a generation looked out of the window and dreamt of man walking on the moon, now a new one wonders whether it will be able to afford the journey. Fresh interest in the space travel memorabilia market – hitherto dominated by the baby boomers’ nostalgia for the 1960s – is being sparked by private and commercial enterprises such as Red Bull Stratos and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (scheduled to launch this year), along with Indian and Chinese missions set for 2016 and 2017. The upshot is an influx of collectors expanding the growing western market, presently valued at over £2m per annum.
The gems of space collecting are items that have travelled to the furthest reaches of human exploration. Most prized are those from landmark expeditions such as the first steps on the moon (all the more so following Neil Armstrong’s death last year), the other Apollo missions and, most recently, Felix Baumgartner’s highest skydive from outer space. Nick Deakin, a UK-based space collector and founder of online memorabilia store Space Boosters, says: “World records in space travel should stand for a long time, and that will be reflected in the price of associated artefacts and memorabilia.”
The role of the US in space missions means its auction houses are a fertile hunting ground – and, reflecting the recent explosion in interest, the number dealing with space artefacts has risen from one in 1995 to five (Bonhams, Christie’s, Heritage, Regency Superior and RR Auction). “The market for space artefacts is lively and growing,” says Matthew Haley, who launched Bonhams’ annual Space History auctions in New York in 2009. Record sales have included a Neil Armstrong-signed “One small step for a man” quotation, which sold for $152,000 in 2010, and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov’s 1975 ASTP (Apollo–Soyuz Test Project) space suit, worn during the first docking of US and Soviet spacecraft, which fetched $242,000 in 2011. “Many of our clients are not traditional auction buyers, and for me it’s exciting to work with new collectors,” Haley adds.
The UK may trail behind the US in terms of availability, but it is still a place to discover treasures. In 2011, London’s Bloomsbury Auctions hosted a sale called the Exploration of Space, Vintage Nasa Photographs, where William Anders’ image of the earth rising over the moon, taken from Apollo 8, sold for £10,000, while in 2012’s Astronomy and Space Exploration sale a boxed set of 199 gelatin silver prints of the moon, taken by Ranger 7 in 1964, sold for £2,000.
Paul Fraser Collectibles, based in Bristol and the Channel Islands (as well as the US), is offering the scissors and comb that Armstrong’s barber used to cut his hair (as well as 25 strands from his head) for £35,000 – in addition to having recently sold Buzz Aldrin’s signed Apollo 11 training suit for £75,000. Director Adrian Roose says space market prices are literally rocketing: “Big events such as Red Bull Stratos tend to kick-start investment in our industry.”
Signatures inevitably render memorabilia even more highly prized. Armstrong’s autograph still fetches about £2,000, as he was very careful what he signed, and those of cosmonauts are also greatly valued, as the Soviet Union discouraged the cult of personality. Online space specialist Farthest Reaches has signed items for sale, including a Nasa lithograph autographed by Armstrong for $4,100 and postcards and photographs signed by Yuri Gagarin and other cosmonauts for about $300-$600.
However, kit actually worn in space is the gold dust of the memorabilia market. Collector Matt Thomas’s prize artefact is a pair of spacesuit training gloves made for Alan Shepard, the first US man in space, worth more than $10,000. The Chester-based record producer and DJ also points out that understanding labelling is key: “‘Flown to the moon’ means it has been in orbit, ‘Flown to the lunar surface’ means it has been in a lunar module on the moon, and ‘Carried on the moon’ means the astronaut has carried, worn or used that item on the moon.”
Thomas adds that it was only last September that Congress passed a bill granting astronauts ownership of souvenir items such as suit parts and lists, which is why in November a cuff checklist (a small, bound instruction booklet affixed to the astronaut’s wrist) worn by Apollo 15’s Dave Scott sold for $364,452 at RR Auction.
“Only 12 people have ever walked on a world that is unreachable for the rest of us,” says Massachusetts-based insurance executive Larry McGlynn. “To own something that has touched that other world is very, very cool.” He grew up dreaming of being an astronaut and his extensive collection now includes a Bulova stopwatch used by Scott and a cosmonaut suit.
His favourite piece, however, is a painting of Snoopy that flew in the command module of Apollo 10. Such quirky items hold special appeal for collectors – a photo of Playboy’s Miss August 1969 that was hidden on Apollo 12 fetched about $14,000 at RR Auction in 2011. And some fascinating items in this area are currently for sale: metal-backed Snoopy decals used on Skylab III in 1973 (belonging to astronaut Edward Gibson) that cost $500 each on Farthest Reaches. Peanuts creator Charles Schultz gave permission for these markers to be used to identify the crew’s personal items, and they have travelled 178m kilometres in space – something we can still only dream of doing.