Distraction Free Reading

The Strange Journeys of Otherworldly Artifacts

The list of objects on offer is intriguing: flags that were carried, but never raised on a flagpole; stamps that traveled thousands of miles without being posted; a meal tightly sealed in a plastic pouch, returned uneaten from the journey. These artifacts, and many others like them, are listed for sale on Bonhams’ auction site—under the “Space History” category. Popular items include commemorative medallions, pins, flags, mission patches, and postal issues, authorized by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The auctioneers’ specialized language includes terms of location, movement and possession: objects are listed as “carried,” “flown,”  “signed,” and “rare.” Collectors prepare their bids based on the details of object histories—where they have traveled and with whom—as recounted in accompanying letters of authenticity or fixed in time and place by a photograph. Bonhams’ vivid descriptions and NASA’s authenticating control create a fascination and demand among collectors and the public for objects circulating on Earth that have been to space—and an invitation to support future journeys.

Photograph of a framed patch mounted on paper that has signatures on it.

The description on the back of the plaque reads: “This plaque was presented to Administrator James C. Fletcher by the Apollo 11 Crew for award to the future Mars I crew (when the first manned mission to Mars is scheduled), July 20, 1987 at The Case for Mars III Conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado.” Photographed on Friday, July 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized the Apollo space program, and from 1967-1972 NASA sent 17 missions into space. In 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to stand on the Moon, and in 1972 on Apollo 17 Eugene Cernan became the last. In December 2017, four decades after Cernan’s boot left its last impression on the lunar surface, the current administration signed Space Policy Directive 1, setting the US on course for a return to the Moon, travel to Mars, and beyond. If the program moves forward, can the public be convinced to underwrite expensive travel to distant planets? What will future space travelers to these destinations pack? The past journeys of Apollo artifacts and the virtual journeys of their collectors hint at the answers, and show the power of objects to engage us with other worlds.

Sacred Commodities

Space is a place of extremes. Scientific instruments, cameras, and detectors sent to space are proxies for the human senses, designed to survive inhospitable conditions and return a technical narrative of data to be decoded. While much of the equipment has been retained in NASA’s archives, many mundane space objects evoke more personal narratives, and are available to collectors. Maps and flight plans with handwritten notations, carry pouches and specialized clothing worn by Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and ‘70s were engineered to survive in alien environments; yet they feel hauntingly familiar, like blurred mirrors of a past self, conveying a human-scaled reflection of the body living and working in space. Things worn or carried by astronauts on the Moon are perceived by collectors as hero objects, preserving the imprint and reflecting the essence of their wearers. These modern relics have been transformed into “sacred commodities,” to borrow a term from historian Patrick Geary (1986). In his discussion of the brisk trade in religious relics in the Middle Ages, Geary focuses on the commodification of saint’s bones, teeth and hair through circulation and trade, but also on religious relics as both person and thing. The idea of relics in circulation is useful for understanding the power of modern collections of space artifacts. Using documents, photographs, autographs and diagrams, NASA and the dealers and collectors of space objects have in effect co- constructed the hierarchical system of meanings within which space artifacts are both sacralized and commodified. Space relics circulating in the marketplace connect collectors with astronauts, valorizing their acts on past space missions and stoking interest in future human space exploration.

Photograph of Buzz Aldrin placing scientific instruments on the Moon.

In this photograph taken by fellow moonwalker Neil Armstrong, astronaut Buzz Aldrin carries two packages of scientific instruments, which he will place and leave on the lunar surface. Image Credit: NASA

Hidden and Forbidden

Among the many thousands of space objects tracked and regulated by NASA, two categories, space-themed postage stamps and Moon rocks, are seemingly irresistible to collectors, smugglers and counterfeiters. Stamps, nearly weightless image-objects designed to project political and cultural ideas in their travels, are especially magnetic for collectors. Produced in known quantities, and designed for visual appeal, stamps can be ordered and organized into complete sets. Stamps produced for collectors are transformed from their original purpose, as payment for a delivery service, to a source of artefactual knowledge. They convey governmental authority, yet their slightness makes them among the easiest artifacts to transport into space. Stamps have gone to the Moon and back, carried in an astronaut’s pocket as he strolled on the surface. They have been postmarked on the lunar surface or been tucked in a spacecraft’s storage space as it orbited the Moon. Each trajectory commands a different auction price, with those traveling closest to the surface being the most valuable.

During the Apollo program, NASA, intent on closely controlling which objects traveled to space, insisted that even the astronauts’ small allotment of “personal items” be approved in writing before the mission. In 1971, a collection of stamped envelopes was secretly transported aboard Apollo 15 by the three crew members. Mission commander David Scott stored envelopes in one of his spacesuit pockets and carried them to the lunar surface. The astronauts had been lured into covertly transporting the artifacts, in an end-run around NASA controllers, by a German collector and stamp dealer, Herman Sieger. When the scheme was discovered, NASA publicly censured the astronauts, an irony not lost on those who noted that NASA was also engaged in sending stamps and postal covers to the Moon and back, as a means of transforming them into valuable (and officially sanctioned) commemorative items. The astronauts successfully sued for return of their envelopes, which they signed and sold, sending them back into circulation.

Replica moon rocks under a glass dome on a stand labelled "Simulated Lunar Samples."

A collection of seven moon rock models from the Apollo 11, 15, 16, and 17 missions. Photo Credit: NASA.

The urge to physically touch the Moon, or a transported piece of it, has motivated many attempts to acquire “Moon rocks,” or soil and samples from the lunar surface. Though few would claim that the United States alone owns the Moon, claims have been staked indirectly through the objects placed on the surface by the government. Since the earliest days of kingdom-building, flags have been “planted” as symbols of control, and flags have predictably appeared on the Moon as well.  But what flag governs rocks and soil transported from the Moon to Earth? Apollo lunar landing missions brought back over 800 pounds of Moon rocks, and Soviet unmanned probes retrieved another 11.5 ounces. NASA considers all Moon rocks and even Moon dust collected on space missions to be property of the US Government, even if located in another country (except for the Soviet samples). In 1998 a Florida man was arrested for attempting to sell a piece of the moon encased in acrylic, which he had purchased from a Honduran military officer. NASA, which had presented the sample as a gift to the government of Honduras in 1973, conducted a sting operation that snared the Floridian. In 2004 courts ordered the rock to be returned to the government of Honduras. The rules governing a third source of Moon rocks, lunar meteorites that fall to Earth, are unclear but probably fall under the category of finders-keepers.

Value in the Virtual

As the river of space artifacts flows through the hands of administrators, engineers, astronauts, curators and collectors, do these objects ever come to rest? One might reasonably assume that an object carefully staged, in a climate-controlled museum collection is stationary. But museums buy, borrow, lend, create traveling exhibitions or de-accession objects. Private collectors trade, sell or leave their collections to public museums. Objects circulate through texts, in exhibition catalogs, research papers and photographs. Space collections are beginning to circulate in the virtual world as well.  By using lasers and structured light scanners to capture geometry and textures from artifact surfaces, museum workers are translating physical objects into 3D models. Recently curators and exhibit designers at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum digitized and constructed a 3D model of the Apollo 11 Command Module, a complex, fragile artifact that returned from space in 1969.

Using a touch screen display, visitors can rotate the model to virtually move about inside and outside of the spacecraft. As the boundaries between 3D digital artifacts and their documentation is increasingly blurred, museum archivists puzzle over how to treat these data objects, which don’t fit easily into existing archival categories. As the curator of the Command Module has noted, a high-fidelity digital model can be in effect the front end to a database of object attributes and histories, merging the object and its documentation.

Will touching the virtual object through an interactive interface ever be as satisfying as virtually reaching through the object to touch the experience of space? Will 3D models be circulated and thus acquire increased value for collectors and museums? The value of digital artifacts has yet to be tested in the marketplace, and 3D models rest uneasily in public collections, though they are being used to excite museum audiences about human space exploration. We must wait for the next generation of space travelers and their objects, to know whether such virtual relics as the 3D Command Module, will maintain their connections to the physical, otherworldly objects of veneration, becoming sacred commodities.


Geary, Patrick. “Sacred Commodities: the circulation of medieval relics,” ed. Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things. London: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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