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
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.