Astronauts: Why Do They Charge?
by Kim Poor
There are not many hobbies that one can do for free. Indeed, most hobbies are by definition expensive.|
Collecting astronauts' autographs had been the exception. You could send a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), wait, and in most cases get a signature back for free. The result (in addition to the autograph) was a warm, fuzzy feeling many sought to share. Reports of "successes" would be published, and the process would repeat. It was addictive.
So when something stood in the way of this euphoria -- astronauts began charging for their autographs -- it was understandable that a desire grew to point fingers, to find a scapegoat. Collectors wanted someone to blame.
Ironically, it was the hobby itself that was partly, if not directly responsible for the charges. Each success publicized resulted in a flood of mail, increasing demands on the astronaut's time, and leading to requests beyond the simple autograph (clothing, hair, some memento, etc.). Then there were those who sold their newly and freely aquired booty on high-profile public forums like eBay. Eventually this too resulted in a fee, both to stem the tide and to compensate for their trouble.
To be fair, the vast majority of people we talk to at Novaspace are too shy, respectful, or otherwise reluctant to obtain autographs by mail. Our customer base consists mostly of these people. It's the reason dealers exist. Although they may not want to intrude on a astronaut's private life or home, most people will freely come to a book signing, lecture, or meet & greet event where permission is expressly granted. They want to meet their heroes, but not at the cost of invading their space.
Time = Money
Those with professional or salaried positions realize a calculation of earnings per hour is meaningless. It doesn't begin to take into account years of uncompensated learning, instruction, internship, experience, or skill. Astronauts can make many thousands of dollars an hour signing autographs. Sports figures can make more. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani makes $100,000 for an hour lecture! Those figures belie the foundation of that earning power, of course.
Time is money. As you get older (as I am finding out) your time is shorter and worth more money, even if you aren't a celebrity.
Most of the Apollo astronauts spend time on the lecture circuit. They may earn $20,000 or more from a single public appearance, an hour speech, plus expenses. Alan Bean, for example, is constantly torn between his love and "mission" for painting all things Apollo, and his public speaking engagements, which pay much better with relatively little effort. Alan is a big hit on the motivational circuit and corporations pay him well to come and talk.
Shouldn't it make sense then to earn as much per hour signing your name as you do public speaking? Especially if those autographs are likely to be resold, or merely claimed as a valuation on home insurance? They have value due to market forces no one can control. If an item has value, the maker of that item is due fair compensation. That's basic capitalism.
Some decry dealers (like ourselves) usurping the major astronauts who might be publicly available otherwise. Exactly the opposite is true. More and more astronauts are fed up with the "mail game" and a single source funneling requests to them is the only way they will continue to sign. Of course there is a fee, which varies, but it is largely dependant on reducing the volume rather than astronaut popularity, although there is a correlation.
As a concession to one astronaut, we answer all his mail requests. It is most enlightening to see an astronaut's mail. There are lots of requests for endorsements, public appearances, autographs, photos... most for free (a few people offer to pay some small amount), hardly ever a SASE, especially from the European collectors. Often the "butter-up" letter is so generic as to not even address the astronaut by name.
Gene Cernan, who signs for a fee, has a significant job every day opening his mail requests. Can you imagine John Young's mailbag? Can you imagine Young's mailbag after a success"is reported on the Internet? A case could be made that the astronauts are on the road as much as they are to pay for the time and earnings lost signing autographs, which might cost more if they weren't subsidized!
So the astronauts charge, but why so much? Some astronauts actually charge very little, taking into consideration that signing the autograph is really the easiest part. There's unpacking, reading the instructions or the "butter-up" letter, packing and mailing, which often entails a trip to the dreaded post office, parking, waiting in lines, security, etc., and again, time is money. The astronauts who charge the most are not surprisingly those who have the highest demand, highest resale value, and highest speaking fees.
At Novaspace, we are often asked how we get moonwalkers here to Tucson for a signing. It's really not a secret: we offer them a guarantee well into five figures, pay travel expenses, and all for a few hours of signing. They don't have to meet anyone, speak, shave, dress up or even shower. They go home that evening and sleep in their own bed with a fat check, always in excess of our guarantee. We compete with the lecture circuit. We do all the work of gathering and returning goods, with a supervised signing. All the astronaut has to do is sign, repeatedly.
Do we take a percentage? Of course! This isn't a hobby for us, but a business (although I collect, too). We're one of only two dealers who has an actual storefront, employees and payroll (the other is the newly-opened Space Store in Houston). It costs $700 per month just to keep the lights burning! This is known as overhead. It's what makes smaller, home-based dealers less expensive, but they are at a disadvantage when trying to look professional to an astronaut. Handling high-volume also allows us to negotiate discounts and special exceptions at our signings (like Aldrin and baseballs.) We earn our percentage. Every signing is a huge effort before, during and after.
Yet, we find ourselves tagged by a small minority as being greedy, or worse yet, the astronaut is so charged (hint: don't say it on the Internet: you never know who might be listening). But we try to charge a fair price based upon the expected workload, the astronaut's popularity and availability, and other factors.
An extreme example... we have been asked repeatedly, both by inexperienced collectors and knowledgeable ones who think we are SuperDealer: "When are you going to have Armstrong out for a signing?" Not very likely, but if we (somehow) did, we would have to limit the number of items by charging a really high fee, say $1000 for the basic signature, otherwise we'd have tens of thousands of requests, just from our own customers. We can only handle (store, insure, organize, return) a few hundred. We'd have people camping outside our door for weeks!
This would be almost assuredly the same scenario for anyone booking Armstrong for a signing. Maybe he realizes that, and doesn't do signings for that reason. Even at $1000, you'd see these pieces on eBay, and other people claiming "greed!". I think you can see that although people would make lots of money with a high fee, it isn't greed at all, but a necessity born out of limitations.
All that said, there will always be room for the hobby. Many newer astronauts are only accessible through the mail, and it's kind of like collecting baseball cards to speculate on which ones might distinguish themselves and become famous. They don't charge and are happy to give their autograph to a true space fan. Warm and fuzzy!
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Kim Poor has become one of the world's best known space artists. His unique style and dramatic use of color and perspective has won numerous awards and has been seen in many publications, movies and television shows worldwide. He was a co-founder and the first president of the IAAA, the international guild of space artists, and today owns the world's first and largest gallery devoted to space art, Novaspace Galleries.|
He can be reached through his company at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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