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Published: 5/5/2011

Auction of space items marks major anniversary

BY DAN MAJORS
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Going, going … gone! Where few men have gone before.

The next generation of collectibles goes on the auction block in New York Thursday with nearly 250 mementos from the dawn of the Space Age.

The Space History Sale, conducted by Bonhams Auctioneers, will begin at 1 p.m., timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the launch of Freedom 7, which carried astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

Matthew Haley, a space history specialist with Bonhams, has assembled a collection of rare space-related souvenirs ranging from the breath-taking to the bizarre.

The items available include medals and crew patches, pieces of equipment, letters, photographs, and flight-plan pages, many of them bearing historic autographs.

Your grandfather collected stamps. Your father had a shoebox full of baseball cards. For a bid of $1,200, you might be able to acquire astronaut Gordon Cooper's slide rule, signed by the man himself.

Mr. Haley said one of the more fascinating items is the motion-picture camera used by Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14's lunar module pilot, to record the craft's undocking and descent to the moon's surface. Only six manned spacecraft landed on the moon, and most of the cameras and other expendable pieces of equipment were left on the lunar surface to make room for moon rocks on the ship.

Two cameras came back to Earth, and one of those is in the Smithsonian. The other is available Thursday on Madison Avenue -- or online -- for an estimated price of $80,000. Mr. Haley said it doesn't have a film cartridge, and there's a chance it doesn't work anymore, but still ... with moon trips a thing of the past -- or the distant future -- there's a good chance it will increase in value.

"We're just entering the years when space brings back fond memories," Mr. Haley said. "We have buyers pretty much worldwide, though most of them are in North America and they tend to be deeply involved in technology and business and aviation."

Most of the items available Thursday come from Apollo astronauts, the Forbes collection, and the estate of James E. Webb, NASA administrator from 1961-68. Among the items from Mr. Webb's collection are signed memos from President John F. Kennedy, one of which encourages Mr. Webb to keep up with the Russians.

Just as the race with the Russians helped advance America's space program, Mr. Haley said, Russian interest in the auction might drive up some prices.

"I look for very enthusiastic bidding," Mr. Haley said, particularly on the spacesuit of cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, from the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz project. If it creates some competition between American and Russian collectors, it could go for $100,000 or more.

Another piece is a simple-looking, 19-inch strap from the lower right side of Mr. Mitchell's portable life-support system. The Bonhams auction book describes the strap as "slightly grubby."

"We believe that is significant because the [dirty-looking] material is likely to be moon dust," Mr. Haley said of the strap.

Other items include:

A copy of We Seven, the story of the original Mercury astronauts, signed by all seven men.

Photographs and patches from Apollo 11, featuring the signatures of all three astronauts, including the reclusive Neil Armstrong, who stopped signing memorabilia years ago.

A brass tag worn by Ham, the chimpanzee sent up in the first nonhuman spaceflight. It is stamped with the number 65. and should fetch between $2,000 and $4,000.

A Bulova stopwatch used by astronaut Dave Scott of Apollo 15 to time the engine burn for the lunar landing. It still bears a strip of duct tape marking 24.5 seconds, when the engine had to shut off.

A cloth-covered tissue dispenser from Apollo 14, again bearing the signature of Mr. Mitchell. "Even while orbiting the moon, astronauts still have to blow their noses," the auction book reads. Despite the fact that it comes without tissues, the box is expected to go for $6,000.

A 1993 Nintendo Game Boy, which a Russian cosmonaut used to play Tetris while aboard the Mir space station.

Mr. Haley said Bonhams hopes to bring in more than $1.2 million in the house's third sale of space items. The first, in July, 2009, generated almost $2 million.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dan Majors is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.



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