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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Christie's holds garage sale for space geeks

Atlas, Titan and Polaris rockets

CNN's Miles O'Brien reports on an unprecedented sale of space relics
Windows Media 28K 80K

September 18, 1999
Web posted at: 1:46 p.m. EDT (1746 GMT)

In this story:

20,000 leagues over the sea

Prices may vary

Whose toys are they?


By Miles O'Brien
CNN Correspondent

NEW YORK (CNN) - They say the one thing that separates the men from the boys - is the price of their toys.

Nowhere is that point made better than at Christie's - the Upper East Side auction house for the carriage trade.

On Saturday, the venerable outfit will hold a highfalutin' garage sale for space geeks (I use the term with affection - and as a card carrying member - so don't flame me).

There are some amazing and interesting detritus of the glory days of the U.S. space program - straight from the attics of 10 Mercury/Gemini/Apollo "Right Stuffers" - and one anonymous space devotee who is liquidating a large collection.

Take a look at the list of loot contributors.

A piece of the Beta cloth covering for the backpack worn by Jim Irwin on the moon  

Buzz Aldrin (Gemini -12, Apollo 11), Gordon Cooper (Mercury 9, Gemini 5), Walt Cunningham (Apollo 7), Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14), Wally Schirra (Mercury 8, Gemini 6, Apollo 7), Tom Stafford (Gemini 6, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) and the estates of Pete Conrad (Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12, Skylab 2), Gus Grissom (Mercury 4, Gemini 3), Jim Irwin (Apollo 15), and Deke Slayton (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project).

All are offering mementos of their incredible journeys - to the highest bidder.

If you are near Christie's Upper East Side digs (219 East 67th St.), by all means check out the showroom. You are free to stop by during business hours - no ID or D&B required for browsers.

If you do, you will be rewarded with an up-close view of some interesting, sometimes odd, treasures - with often stunning estimated price tags.

20,000 leagues over the sea

As Christie's Richard Austin was quick to point out, gear from the early days of the space program seems more a product of Verne or Rogers than von Braun or McDonnell.

Was life imitating art when the guys with the slide rules designed Gemini spacesuit gloves with exterior laces, wire restraints and snap straps?

Blueprints for the A6L Apollo lunar space suit  

Maybe so. If Austin is correct, those gloves will sell for somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000.

Move down the showcase a bit and check out the blue prints for the A6L Apollo lunar space suit. You might as well be looking at the costume designs for "The Rocketeer". If you want them, plan on spending between $1,500 and $2,000.

There are a series of scale models - Atlas, Titan and Polaris rockets. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft are estimated to run between $600 and $2,000.

Prices may vary

On the lower shelf, there is a seemingly innocuous proclamation. But upon closer inspection, I understood the significance. It is one of four certificates signed by the two Russian and three American spacefarers who rendezvoused and docked in low-Earth orbit on July 17, 1975, during the Apollo Soyuz Test Project.

Christie's is calling it the "Space Magna Carta" - and it is estimated to fetch between 80 and 120 Large.

On the walls, you will find some treats as well. Walt Cunningham collected color photos of all six Mercury launches, signed by the intrepid occupants of those cozy titanium cans. Financial forecast for the impressive series: 2-3K.

There is also lots of hardware that flew in space, including an equipment locker stripped from the Apollo 13 Command Module.

The locker was designed to hold the crew's Personal Preference Kits (the trinkets they carried, signed and returned as gifts and saleable merchandise), exposed 70mm film from their Hasseblads and some stuff to help with #1 and #2.

Sounds like an outstanding medicine chest. But it'll cost you somewhere between 20 and 30 grand.

An A5L Apollo spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong during training  

There are also some pretty cool spacesuits: a 1960 Russian flight suit similar to the one that Yuri Gagarin wore on his historic flight ($200,000 - $250,000); an A5L Apollo spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong during training ($60,000 - $80,000) and a piece of the Beta cloth covering for the backpack worn by Jim Irwin on the moon.

It shows his nametag and the NASA "meatball" and it is covered in gray dust purported to be lunar grime. Christie's is aiming for $75,000 - $100,000 for this item. Good thing Mrs. Irwin didn't throw it in the wash.

Whose toys are they?

Cool as this stuff is, it raised some questions in my mind about ownership. Can an astronaut or a collector rightly claim ownership of pieces of flight hardware or attire bought and paid-for by the taxpayers?

Shouldn't the proceeds go to the U.S. Treasury? Like so many things in life, the debate comes in shades of gray.

But I was persuaded by this line of reasoning: the Smithsonian has/had first refusal over anything that flew in space. And in the case of the items here, the Institution declined ownership.

And while some may quibble with the personal bonanzas most will realize (all of the proceeds realized by Tom Stafford - and some banked by Jim Irwin's family will go to charity), it is worth remembering the long-shot risks these men took on very short military salaries.

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