A white Teflon-coated jacket that the astronaut Buzz Aldrin wore during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, in 1969, has sold for $2.7 million, or about €2.6 million, at a Sotheby’s auction this week, fetching the highest price among dozens of pieces of rare memorabilia tracing his career in space exploration.
Aldrin, now 92-years-old, has a storied career as an astronaut. Within three years of joining Nasa, in 1963, the former US air-force pilot had executed the world’s first successful spacewalk in the Gemini 12 mission. Then, on July 20th, 1969, millions of people watched on television as he became the second man to walk on the moon, about 20 minutes after Neil Armstrong, who declared it “one giant leap for mankind”.
The custom-fitted jacket Aldrin wore on that mission sold after fierce bidding lasting nine minutes, with the auctioneer calling it “the most valuable American space-flown artefact ever sold at auction”. (The garments worn by the two other Apollo 11 astronauts from that mission are owned by the Smithsonian Institution.)
In all, 68 of 69 lots of Aldrin’s belongings were sold for a combined $8 million by Sotheby’s in Manhattan, at an auction that lasted more than two hours.
Derek Parsons, a Sotheby’s spokesman, says the Aldrin sale was the “most valuable single space exploration auction ever staged”. It broke a record set by one auction of items belonging to Armstrong, who died in 2012, but the other astronaut’s total collection still holds the overall record.
The most coveted artefacts sold on Tuesday travelled to the moon and back more than five decades ago. A complete summary flight plan of the Apollo mission sold for $819,000.
Only one lot did not sell. It included the tiny broken circuit switch that nearly marooned the Apollo 11 crew on the moon and a dented aluminium pen that Aldrin used as a manual workaround to achieve lift-off. Bidding stalled at $650,000, well under the auction’s estimate of $1 million.
Aldrin said in a statement that “the time felt right to share these items with the world, which for many are symbols of a historical moment, but for me have always remained personal mementos of a life dedicated to science and exploration”.
Among the items sold at auction were also gold-coloured lifetime passes to Major League Baseball games, for $7,560, and an MTV Video Music Awards statuette modelled after the iconic image of Aldrin placing the American flag on the moon’s surface, which fetched $88,200.
A presidential medal of freedom, the United States’ highest honour for civilians, bestowed on Aldrin by president Richard Nixon, sold for $277,200. These medals do not appear frequently at auction, Parsons says.
There was also a letter dated December 10th, 1973, written by Armstrong, which went for $21,420. In it, he attempted to dissuade Aldrin from turning his memoir into a movie: “I can’t think of any biography of a living person that has ever been made into a good, high-quality flick.” Aldrin was unpersuaded. The biopic aired three years later. Although that movie was not a critical success, Aldrin did inspire the name for Buzz Lightyear, the animated Pixar character from the Toy Story films.
Ten of the sale’s 69 lots came with a nonfungible token, or NFT, a unique digital identifier for authenticity. Others, such as flight plans with a checklist of items to bring to space – helmet, tissues, snacks – were inscribed with Aldrin’s signature and the phrase “Flown to the Moon”.
More space artefacts have come up for auction since the 2012 passage of a law allowing astronauts to keep and sell their souvenirs from space, according to Cassandra Hatton, a senior specialist at Sotheby’s. Before the law’s adoption, Nasa had repeatedly made attempts to block sales of such items, such as James Lovell’s checklist from the Apollo 13 expedition.
“Before then it was kind of a touch-and-go situation,” Hatton says. “People were selling things and there really wasn’t any clarity. So there was always this kind of concern that maybe Nasa would come in and shut down an auction.”
A 2018 audit from the US space agency’s inspector general found that Nasa’s inconsistent record-keeping had resulted in the loss of a “significant amount” of its property. In June lawyers for Nasa intervened in the sale of dead cockroaches that had ingested moon dust. Before the sale was halted, bidding for the insect trio had reached $40,000.
Sotheby’s space sales are now its most popular category, attracting a broad audience of bidders, Hatton says, adding that the price ranges make the items more accessible than other valuables, such as fine art. The auction house has previously sold items owned by other astronauts, including a small white bag that Armstrong used to collect lunar-rock samples, which netted $1.8 million in 2017.
Hatton says she believes the fascination with space artefacts and with missions to the moon, the last one in 1972, endures because of the significance of those discoveries in human history. “It’s a moment that reminds us all what we can do,” she says. “We can achieve the near impossible, like we can escape our fate of being stuck on this planet. We can do amazing things.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times
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