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NASA@50: Fifty years of space collectibles

October 1, 2008

— The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA as it is more commonly referred to today, began operations 50 years ago on Oct. 1, 1958. Charged with leading the nation's civilian research into air travel and space exploration, it was the latter that caught the public's imagination, which in turn led to a wide desire for commemorative and actual pieces of NASA's exploits in outer space.

In honor of NASA's anniversary, collectSPACE offers the following colorful tour through the agency's first 50 years as guided by the space collectibles it inspired. Each item pictured is contemporary to the milestone it was selected to portray. Click on thumnbails to enlarge.




1958: Before there was NASA, there was NACA — the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. NASA didn't adopt an insignia (or patch) of its own until 1959...

1959: Even before NASA was 'NASA', the U.S. had its own satellite in space. The next step was to send men and to that end, the young agency selected seven test pilots as its original Mercury astronauts. The request for their autographs were so great that NASA needed to employ a machine (an "autopen") to meet the demand (though the signatures pictured here are the real thing).

1960: That is not to suggest that NASA was out of the satellite business; they were just getting started. Echo satellites were essentially big mylar balloons that were used to bounce communication signals. This sample of Echo 1's thin skin is one of the earliest 'official' NASA souvenirs.




1961: The first NASA astronaut to fly was Alan Shepard but his carry-on luggage was limited to little more than a U.S. flag. Gus Grissom, who followed Shepard, packed his pockets with miniature Mercury capsules and dimes (like this one; Liberty Bell 7 was the name he bestowed his spacecraft, which sank after splashdown and wasn't recovered until July 1999).

1962: Next "up" was John Glenn, whose mission was to be the first American astronaut in orbit. He just had to succeed... otherwise, the U.S. Postal Service would be stuck with thousands of stamps they had secretly made and shipped to 305 post offices. (Glenn not only made it but went on to be a Senator before returning to space at age 77 on the space shuttle in 1998).

1963: By the next year, NASA was ready to move on to its next-gen two-man spacecraft. Bringing up the rear of Project Mercury after Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra was Gordon Cooper. The result of his and his fellow fly- boys' missions were written up in books that are sought by collectors today.




1964: By now, NASA was moving up — and out — of this world. While the space agency busied itself with lofting probes like Ranger 7 to photograph the Moon, the Earth based companies supplying NASA started to capitalize on their involvement (remember Tang?) advertising their association. These ads are now selling themselves.

1965: Astronaut Grissom's sense of humor put a kibosh on naming Gemini spacecraft ("The Unsinkable Molly Brown" just didn't fly with officials) so when it was time for Cooper to get his second flight (with crewmate Pete Conrad), he proposed a patch. His idea caught on and "Cooper patches" became the prerequisite 'bling' for all astronauts to this day.

1966: Speaking of bling, not all souvenir insignias were sewn from thread; some were spun from gold. This coin (or more appropriately, medal) flew on Gemini 12, the last mission of the program that taught astronauts how to walk and meet each other in space (a.k.a. "EVA" and "rendezvous"). They were "go" for the Moon, or so they thought...




1967: This patch, one of a limited supply that was made for the Apollo 1 crew, was originally meant to celebrate NASA's first three-man mission. Instead, it has come to represent their loss and the lesson that spaceflight was, and continues to be, dangerous, but it must also go on.

1968: And on the shoulders of giants, on it went. Flying an overhauled spacecraft, Apollo 7 proved the fixes in time for Apollo 8 to circle the Moon on Christmas Eve. Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell read from the Book of Genesis and became the first to see Earthrise.

1969: If there is a pecking order among space artifacts, this flag is near the pinnacle. Flown on the first manned lunar landing mission and autographed by its crew, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, it's a small token of a giant mission.




1970: "Houston, we've had a problem... but we fixed it, so please have this netting as a symbol of a gratitude for bringing us safely back to Earth." If you don't know the story of Apollo 13, rent the movie...

1971: Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard hit golf balls off the Moon, but it was the Apollo 15 crew who were clubbed upon their return for flying some "unauthorized" collectibles. NASA did more or less the same thing in the years to come, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

1972: All good things must come to an end, and in the end, 12 Americans had walked on the Moon, while 12 more had seen it from orbit. All the flown Apollo crews carried with them medals minted by The Robbins Co. in gold and silver — another custom that goes forth today.




1973: Skylab, NASA's first space station, was almost history even before it reached orbit. A problem during its launch led to the loss of its heat shield and one of its two solar arrays. Quick thinking led to a makeshift fix: deploying a parasol made from the same material in the astronauts' spacesuits. Skylab was saved... for now.

1974: Three crews lived on Skylab for increasing stays studying the effects microgravity had on the body. The signatures on this appreciation certificate are preprinted and autopen-drawn, but the medal affixed to it was made (in part) from metal that was onboard Skylab from 1973 to 1974.

1975: In the mid-1970s, there were two things you could count on: cigarettes were fine for you and the Russians were the enemy. Sharing in the spirit of the joint Apollo- Soyuz Test Project, Phillip Morris and the Soviet Yava cigarette factory produced bilingual matching packs (the U.S. and Soviet post offices did the same with stamps).




1976: With the Moon in the rearview window, the U.S. landed an unmanned probe, Viking 1, on Mars on the same day as the anniversary of the first lunar landing (the original date had been July 4, but they had difficulty finding a safe place to touchdown). Viking 2 was soon to follow. (Neither returned to Earth, so where the medal says it contains metal from the lander, it means scraps from the production room floor).

1977: The first orbiter — a winged spacecraft that lifted off like a rocket but landed like a plane — was intended to be named "Constitution" but a letter writing campaign convinced NASA to retitle the test shuttle "Enterprise" after the fictional Star Trek starship. This must have led to some confusion: "But Mom, I wanted the lunch box with Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock and Dr. Bones McCoy!"

1978: The new space shuttle wasn't going to fly itself so NASA needed some new astronauts. And new, they were: among the 35 astronauts selected (they labeled themselves the 'TFNG, the Thirty FIve New Guys') were the first women and African American candidates.




1979: "We interrupt this story about the space shuttle for some breaking news... Skylab is falling out of the sky!" What was Australia's misfortune of location was soon to become a benefit for collectors. Instead of the station sinking into the ocean, parts rained across the outback and since NASA did not desire them returned, it became finder's keepers. "We now return you to the article, already in progress..."

1980: Unlike Apollo, which sat just three and lifted off occassionally, the space shuttle sat seven (eight in a bind) and NASA planners were anticipating the flight rate to grow exponentially. So for good measure, they hired 19 more candidates, plus two European trainees.

1981: Launching on the same day as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history as the first man in space, former moonwalker John Young and rookie pilot Bob Crippen flew the first space shuttle, Columbia, to ever leave the pad. The orbiter returned safely and mostly unscathed. Its protective thermal tiles had held up to reentry, but a few hundred had been damaged. Instead of discarding them, NASA encased small blocks in acrylic and gave them as gifts to those who worked on the mission.




1982: What set the shuttle apart from any other vehicle NASA (or anyone) had flown to that date was its ability to be reused. This medal contains metal that flew with Columbia's fifth mission. NASA had these minted for its 25th anniversary in 1983...

1983: Remember the Apollo 15 crew who got in trouble for flying and then selling stamped envelopes (a.k.a. "covers")? And remember when we said that NASA did the same thing? Welcome to 1983. Partnering with the postal service, NASA carried more than 260,000 covers to space and back, which the USPS offered for sale to the public at $15.35 each.

1984: That's not to say that everything NASA flies and distributes to the public is meant to be a collected (even if they end up that way). In 1984, NASA launched the Long Duration Exposure Facility, a school-bus size sat to test different materials, including 12.5 million tomato seeds. They were meant to return to Earth in one year's time to be distributed to students for experiments, and that did indeed happen, six years late...




1985: Astronauts who spacewalk have a mantra: "Make then break". It refers to their tethers, the cords that tie them to their spacecraft so they do not float away. You "make" — or connect — a new tether before you "break" — disconnect — the old one. Bruce McCandless learned it differently: "Break". Wearing the manned maneuvering unit on his back like, well, the giant jet pack it is, Bruce became the first to make a tetherless spacewalk. This Revell plastic model kit allowed kids to break away with Bruce, too.

1986: Autographs are just scribbles of ink. They carry no intrinsic value (unless the ink is of some worth) and yet the market for them can exceed the price of luxury car. Is it simply the rarity that drives their demand? Or maybe it is the realization that for the autographs to be there, the astronauts, the teacher-turned-astronaut, had to touch that photo, touching the future they would not see.

1987: Fifteen new astronaut candidates joined NASA in June. Their ranks included the first African American woman to fly in space, and a month later, five German trainees.




1988: Nine hundred, 75 days after Challenger was lost, Discovery lifted off, returning the shuttle fleet to space. On-board were a crew of five, a tracking and data relay satellite and among other payloads, hundreds of small flags with the NASA seal that were presented to NASA employees and VIPs after their safe landing.

1989: Meanwhile, inside the solar system but still, far, far away, Voyager 2, one of NASA's twin interplanetary probes launched in 1977, made the first close flyby of Neptune. The unmanned craft discovered "The Great Dark Spot," which was considered by scientists to be a hole in the methane cloud deck of the planet. Following its sister probe Voyager 1, Voyager 2 crossed into the heliosheath in 2007.

1990: "The Great Dark Spot" on Neptune disappeared sometime after Voyager 2 departed. We know that not because we sent another probe, but due to observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope, which lifted off on Discovery and was deployed by the crew of STS-31. Though the astronauts took the spotlight on-orbit, the flight directors and controllers in Houston were just as important to mission success, as always. This cover is not signed by the crew of STS-31, but by their mission control leaders.




1991: We could tell you more about this patch, but then we'd have to lock you away. (Okay, so we don't know much about its history but it is here to remind us of the missions that the Department of Defense would like us to forget: the classified space shuttle missions.)

1992: After Challenger was lost, a decision was made to build a replacement. If the maiden flight of an orbiter was not exciting enough, the crew made an unplanned and completely unpredented three-person spacewalk to capture an uncooperative satellite. The new orbiter was named Endeavour after after HM Bark Endeavour, the ship commanded by 18th century explorer James Cook.

1993: The Hubble Space Telescope didn't need three astronauts to repair its faulty optics; it needed four (two at a time). The crew of STS-61 made fixing the scope look easy... and cool, appearing with actor Tim Allen on his TV sitcom "Tool Time".




1994: NASA again partnered with the postal service to fly stamps for sale, this time for the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing. STS-68 flew 500,000 stamps on Endeavour, which later sold for $25 each.

1995: NASA's partnerships weren't limited to the post office. For the first time since 1975, a U.S. spacecraft, the space shuttle Atlantis, and a Russian spacecraft, the space station Mir, docked in space. The union was the start to "Phase 1" of a joint space station project and included several NASA astronauts living on Mir and several Russian cosmonauts riding on the shuttle. This medal combined a bit of each vehicle with other metal.

1996: Now relegated to cameo appearances in Star Trek series (Enterprise, the orbiter, is secretly laughing) the X-33 was to demonstrate the technologies NASA needed in a next-generation space shuttle. Lockheed Martin won the contract with this design, which would be supersized into the Venturestar, a commercially-run orbiter-for-hire. NASA canceled the project in 2001, as the technology needs approached Star Trek fantasies.




1997: Step one: Quietly license the exclusive rights to a toy version of a mini Mars rover. Step two: Watch as said rover not only lands safely but takes on a human- like persona to the delights of millions. Step three: Sell your toy rover. Step four: Profit!

1998: Step one: Quietly license the rights to a model of a mini space station (soon to grow bigger). Step two: Watch station components launch safely to lukewarm fanfare. Step three: Try to sell your model station. Step four: Profit?

1999: Step one: Loudly license the exclusive rights to a toy version of a Mars orbiter, probes and lander. Step two: Watch as all three spacecraft disappear and crash. Step three: Pull your toy from the store shelves. Step four: There is no step four.




2000: Oh Yuri, I'm home! The first resident crew of the International Space Station arrives to make the outpost no place like home. The move-in marks the beginning of a permanent human presence in space. (You know that feeling when you go away on a trip and just know you forgot something? You're not paranoid: for the first time since since 1968, an American flies in space without a Robbins medal. This example, one of 100, was created post-haste, post flight.)

2001: Sometimes a flown flag can say what words can't suffice. NASA's Flags for Heroes and Families program offers thousands of the nylon star spangled banners to the survivors and first responders to the 9-11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC.

2002: "3, 2, 1, and liftoff of space shuttle Columbia to broaden our view of the universe through the Hubble Space Telescope." The crew of STS-109 successfully services the observatory and returns Columbia to earth for the last time. This pin, a variation on the standard mission variety, was worn by the STS-109 launch team.




2003: Within minutes of the news being confirmed, tens of thousands of orders for the STS-107 mission patch began streaming into retailers. These weren't collectors, and most were not speculators; most were just people who felt a need to have something tangible to connect them to the fallen crew.

2004: NASA lands twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity on opposite sides of Mars. The mobile "coffee tables" each carry a Lego miniman on their landers, borrow Warner Brothers' Daffy Duck and Marvin the Martian as launch insignia mascots and even appear, as seen here, as a "NASA Kids" toy at Hardees and Carl's Jr. restaurants.

2005: 'Green for Go' ribbons and wristbands were signs that NASA was ready to return the shuttle to flight. The STS-114 crew, led by Eileen Collins, would demonstrate repair and inspection techniques, including the first EVA to the belly of the orbiter.




2006: In 2004, President George W. Bush directed the space agency to return astronauts to the Moon, go on to Mars and explore Beyond. To do that, NASA needed a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). This lapel pin, representing the Northrop Grumman-Boeing team, was made a collector's item when Lockheed Martin won the CEV ("Orion") contract.

2007: Educator mission specialist Barbara Morgan, who 22 years earlier was backup to Christa McAuliffe, flies to the space station where she prepares video lessons for kids taking part in a plant growth design challenge to grow basil on the Moon. These seeds were among the 10 million flown.

2008: Happy 50th anniversary NASA!

Photo credits: Aurora Auctions, eBay,, Heritage Auction Galleries,, Lunar Legacies, Novaspace Galleries, Regency-Superior Galleries, Smithsonian, Sterling Publishing and collectSPACE.

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