Space flight memorabilia is big biz

When it comes to space travel collecting, a bank account, not the sky, often can be the limit.

With the advent of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, the marketplace for such material has expanded, and prices for anything, particularly anything related to lunar exploration, are showing the extent of that interest.

Space-related items can range from old Life magazines to coins sold by the U.S. Mint to tiny bits of material purportedly from actual spacecraft. And just about anyone can be a collector. It’s a hobby that touches on history, science, personalities and technology.

The various items available can be confusing, said Hervé Gonay, founder of Space Collectibles. A self-described passionate collector of space-related items, Gonay began by gathering newspaper clippings, photos and books.

There’s a difference between collectibles and memorabilia, Gonay said.

Simple things like widely available mission patches and photographs of spacecraft and space scenes can be considered collectible, he said.

Other items range from ashtrays with a mission emblem to postcards and even whiskey decanters. Many of these items were created years, even decades after a flight, but have no actual connection to what they commemorate.

Space memorabilia should not be confused with collectibles, Gonay said.

“While collectibles are just bought for fun, memorabilia serve a purpose,” he said. Memorabilia includes items with a historical interest, an actual memento. These can include things flown in space or associated with a particular mission or astronaut.

One item, somewhat controversial, is postal insurance covers, stamped envelopes, signed by astronauts before a flight. The idea was to sell the covers on the presumption they would become extremely valuable if the astronaut were to die during the mission.

The money would supplement each man’s life insurance, Gonay said. The covers were signed by the crews of Apollo 11 through Apollo 16 and, although never used for their intended purpose, still are sought by collectors.

The postal cover program raised the ire of NASA administrators and Congress when some were carried to the moon on Apollo 15 and then sold to collectors, with one auctioned at more than $55,000.

Documents such as flight plans or checklists can be particularly hard to find because, while many copies were produced for a mission, most were simply thrown away at the conclusion of a flight. Digital copies are easily found, but originals printed for a particular mission can command several hundred dollars each.

Astronauts’ letters or signed photos are some of the most highly-prized space memorabilia, Gonay said.

“Astronaut autographs are increasingly popular and therefore appreciating substantially in price,” he said. “As such, they are also targets of forgers, both skilled and laughable.”

Many astronauts used autopen machines to sign photos, making them worth much less than personally-inscribed photos.

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong’s signature is perhaps the most sought-after. He signed many items before and shortly after his lunar landing mission, then stopped almost completely when he learned these items were being sold for considerable sums of money.

Shortly after his death in 2012, a Los Angeles auction house reported it sold Armstrong’s signature, written on the back of a Florida picture postcard, for more than $2,300.

Gonay recommends extreme caution buying space items online, saying the buyer must do everything possible to ensure the piece is authentic.

That warning especially extends to autographs.

“Online sites like eBay are easy marks for these items,” he said. “Although some good astronaut autographs may be had there, it is a scary place for the inexperienced autograph collector.”

If you want to get into the stratosphere of collecting, Sotheby’s in London will be auctioning three reels of original videotape recordings of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. A NASA intern bought them for $217 as part of a truckload of tapes at a NASA surplus auction. Today they’re expected to fetch between $1 million and $2 million.

These prices are the exception. Several online sites, including space-collectibles.com, collectspace.com, and thespacestore.com offer collectibles and memorabilia from the U.S. and Soviet space programs and much can be had at relatively reasonable prices. Almost everything sold on these sites comes with a certification that the item is genuine.

Other sites such as eBay offer space-related items, but these may come with a greater risk to the buyer. eBay does have a limited return policy that can help protect a buyer from unscrupulous sellers.