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Bidding for a piece of the moon

  • From a rare Apollo 11 timeline book to first-generation video recordings of the moon walk, auction houses are putting up unique artefacts for sale
  • The aim is to celebrate 50 years of the moon landing

A signed photograph of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong at Tranquility Base
A signed photograph of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong at Tranquility Base

From specimens of rare lunar meteorites and the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline Book to the “best surviving videotapes" of man’s first steps on the moon, several unique artefacts are being auctioned to commemorate 50 years of the moon landing. Not only are these objects significant in the context of the history of space exploration, they have interesting personal stories behind them as well.

For instance, US space agency Nasa’s videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 landing, which are being hailed as the “earliest, sharpest and most accurate surviving video images" of the event by Sotheby’s, are from the collection of Gary George, who has safeguarded them for 43 years.

It was as an engineering student at Lamar University, Texas, that George was awarded a cooperative work internship at the Nasa Johnson Space Centre in July 1973. During his internship, in June 1976, he attended a government surplus auction at Houston’s Ellington Air Force Base and bought a single lot of 1,150 reels of magnetic tape for $217.77 (around 15,000 now), whose “Owning Agency or Reporting Office" was Nasa. After selling some of the tapes and donating others to Lamar University, George’s father came across three boxes with small typewriter labels, identifying them as “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969 REEL 1 [–3]" and “VR2000 525 Hi Band 15 ips". The family held on to these.

But it was only in 2008, when news emerged that Nasa was trying to locate its original slow-scan videotapes of the Apollo 11 extra-vehicular activity for the 40th anniversary of the landing, that George took a second look at the tapes. He sought the assistance of the DC Video Studio, which had the equipment to play these tapes.

These “unrestored, unenhanced and unremastered" tapes, viewed only three times since they were first recorded on the evening of 20 July 1969 at Nasa’s Mission Control Center, Houston, Texas, are estimated to sell at $0.5 million on 20 July in New York as part of the auction dedicated to space exploration.

At a combined runtime of 2 hours, 24 minutes, these tapes capture key historic moments, ranging from Neil Armstrong’s declaration of “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" to the “long distance phone call" with then US president Richard Nixon and the planting of the American flag. “These items were sold by Nasa at a government surplus auction. The consignor still has the receipts from the sale, so we were able to verify the provenance and the fact that he (the consignor) has the authority to sell them," says Cassandra Hatton, vice-president and senior specialist at Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department, on email. Though the content of the tapes is in the public domain, what Sotheby’s is selling is the artefact, the tapes themselves, which are the only surviving first-generation Nasa recordings of that event, including the historic moonwalk.

The surviving Nasa videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
The surviving Nasa videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Christie’s undertook another significant auction, One Giant Leap: Celebrating 50 Years After Apollo 11, on 18 July. Two hundred artefacts from the Nasa missions in the 1960s-70s were put on sale. The highlight was the “Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline Book", which was used by Neil Armstrong and Edwin, or “Buzz", Aldrin to navigate the lunar module, Eagle, on to the surface of the moon. The book features 150 handwritten annotations and has traces of moon dust. What makes it even more significant is that it’s the first instance of writing by a human being on an extraterrestrial body.

The auction house is also offering The Moon and Beyond: Meteorites From The Stifler Collection, which is open for bidding till 25 July. The majority of the collection, which boasts of six of the largest lunar meteorites, is being donated to the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, US.

Some of the objects offered in this sale are cuttings taken from specimens; the proceeds will be donated to the museum. According to Christie’s, meteorites are exceedingly rare—the combined mass of all known examples held in museums and private collections weighs less than the world’s annual output of gold. The lunar meteorites, of course, are some of the rarest objects on earth.

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