Space $ouvenirs

Collectors compete for artifacts from the Apollo program.

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

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.

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