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Collecting 40 years of space history

April 12, 2001 — Not long after his historic flight, Yuri Gagarin was sitting at a bar when he was approached by a man seeking to buy him a beer. Gagarin refused, yet the star-struck man was not to be dissuaded. Instead, he asked the premier cosmonaut for his autograph. Gagarin agreed, yet it soon became clear his admirer had nothing for him to sign. Perhaps sensing the man's persistence, Gagarin wrote his signature on the only thing available — a piece of paper from his own pocket — and gave it him.

Gagarin's experience that day was not unique. The first flyer reportedly signed hundreds, if not thousands of autographs for adoring fans between his return to Earth and his untimely death seven years later. The desire to own a personal "connection" with the first human to fly into space was extended by the public to the 399 men and woman who followed Gagarin, if sometimes only to a slightly lesser extent. The requests, though, did not end with those for a signature.

"Many of us feel compelled to own something that connects us, even if tenuously, to space-related events," writes Russell Still in the recently published third edition of his book Relics of the Space Race. "Commercial collectibles such as commemorative plates, artwork, buttons, medallions, lunch boxes, watches, stamps, models and trading cards have sprung up to accommodate our hunger."

"While these things satisfy some people," continues Still "others demand items more directly related, such as autographed photos and postal covers, souvenirs carried on missions, official documents and actual pieces of used hardware and support items."

It's these latter items — ranging from the very small support bolt to the very large, complete spacecraft — which often elicit the most surprise from those who are not familiar with the hobby of collecting space memorabilia. Surely, they say, items flown in space are rare international treasures and should be preserved for future generations to appreciate and study. How could they reside in someone's basement or den?

The answer can differ depending on the source of the hardware in question.

A tale of two countries

When the Soviet Union and United States began competing for control of space during the late 1950s, their approach to memorabilia started from opposite ends of the spectrum and met somewhere near the middle. Whereas initially the Soviet Union retained tight control of their work product, the United States embraced a much looser approach.

Take, for example, the two countries' first manned space flights. When Gagarin's Vostok capsule was recovered, the idea of a Soviet engineer removing a segment of the spacecraft for his personal collection would have been unthinkable. (Such an action would have been met with serious discipline and quite possibly imprisonment.)

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, this scenario was not only possible, it was encouraged. Harold French, a NASA telemetry technician, described in a letter to a collector years later how the parachute for Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 was hung in a hanger bay where he worked for several days. Those involved with Project Mercury, including French, were given permission to lower the parachute and cut off sections as a souvenir.

The U.S. approach to allowing memorabilia to be saved from each flight extended well into the 1960s and the Apollo lunar program. Not only were engineers allowed to save small fragments of heat shield and parachute material, but the astronauts were also allowed to carry personal items along for the trip. Obtaining memorabilia was not as difficult a proposition as it might seem. It only required that you know someone who worked directly on the various projects, or even one of the hundreds of thousands of workers across the nation who supported the space program.

All that changed however, after the flight of Apollo 15.

Stowed aboard the fourth U.S. Moon landing were 100 autographed and postmarked envelopes ("covers") belonging to a German stamp dealer. Disregarding the requests of the crew to wait until after the Apollo program was completed, the dealer proceeded with his sale, receiving a reported $1,500 per cover. When what had transpired reached the United States, a congressional investigation ensued and the Apollo 15 crew was taken off flight assignments.

What had once been an unwritten understanding became official NASA policy: no astronaut or NASA employee could profit from the sale of memorabilia. Tighter restrictions were placed on the removal of property from NASA centers and, as such, the days of encouraged "souvenir" collections slowly came to an end.

Meanwhile, the situation for memorabilia in the Soviet Union had remained the same. Collectors would learn years later that medallions were minted (in very low runs) using flown metal from spacecraft such as Vostok 1. In general though, the spacecraft and suits either remained intact or were cannibalized for their parts or research.

The turning point for Russian space memorabilia would come with the collapse of the U.S.S.R and the ensuing economic crisis faced by the newly democratized Russia. As capitalism spread across the former communist nation, the once state-owned-and-controlled aerospace divisions were privatized. In cooperation with European and American businessmen, cosmonauts and engineers began to realize the market for Soviet and Russian space memorabilia existed among Western collectors and investors.

Auctions were organized, as were direct sales, and a flood of spacesuit components, flown mementos — even complete spacecraft — emerged. The steady supply and growing demand for such material reached the point where cosmonauts were carrying items to orbit specifically for postflight resale.

The state of the hobby

With the advent of the space shuttle two decades ago, U.S.-flown material became more plentiful. Aboard almost every flight, NASA stowed hundreds of patches, American flags and other "gifts" for VIPs and valued employees. And access has become easier: While astronauts are still precluded from selling their memorabilia while active, upon retirement they are welcome to do with their possessions as they desire.

Obtaining flown hardware can still prove difficult. Most of what NASA now discards is considered scrap metal and is processed through official channels. Enterprising dealers have tapped this source though, and pieces of flown space shuttle insulation, heat-shield tiles and the like can be purchased.

Until recently, obtaining flown memorabilia directly out of Russia was also possible. With the deorbit of Space Station Mir however, the desire to hold onto some of their Soviet history has made it more difficult to pass items such as spacesuit and rocket components through customs.

For collectors today, much of the new material acquired is recycled from older collections. Both online and off-line auctions offer a chance for new collectors to acquire artifacts, as well as allow former space program employees (from both countries) an opportunity to share their archives.

The collectors' legacy

Forty years of human spaceflight has resulted in an international arsenal of old spacecraft, equipment and ephemera. While efforts have been made to place as many of the key pieces into museums worldwide, the amount of material makes preservation of every item almost impossible.

This is where the collectors' contribution could be important.

"I think the sum total of collectors' holdings is kind of like a huge database," commented Russ Still in an interview with "Unfortunately, it is so widely dispersed and un-indexed, its long-term value as an archive may be questionable."

"That is not to say that individual collections do not serve as a safety net, rescuing dusty ephemera and artifacts before they reach a landfill."

According to Still, the real legacy of collectors may be their ability to inspire future space exploration.

"I suspect the real significance of these collections will be in their abilities to inspire," said Still. "When society fails to see past its own immediate problems, it looses the will to explore. Curiosity gets replaced by security. Historical collections may rekindle the desire in future generations to reach farther and seek new horizons."

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