Armstrong’s “one small step” EKG among aerospace treasures up for auction
By David Szondy
May 8, 2013
Some of the most desirable items for collectors are those with historical significance that tell a story. RR Auction has a whole raft of such items set to go under the hammer as it hosts a major sale of space and aviation memorabilia from the past century. Each one is a bit of history and each one tells a story, but since we can’t go through over 800 stories, we’ll look at ten of the standout items from the height of the Space Age that you can buy – if your pockets are deep enough.
When we think about the early days of the Space Age, the phrase “The Right Stuff” springs to mind. But what is this “stuff?” It’s easier to show than to tell and if anyone had it in abundance, it was the late Neil Armstrong. Best known as the first man to set foot on the Moon in 1969, the Ohio native flew fighter jets for the US Navy during the Korean War, left the service for a career as a test pilot, then went on to the edge of space in the X-15 program where fellow pilot Bill Dana called him a man who “had a mind that absorbed things like a sponge."
When Armstrong jumped over to NASA’s manned spaceflight program, he flew on the Gemini 8 mission. When Apollo came along, Armstrong was nearly killed when the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) trainer – a giant jet-powered frame designed to simulate the lunar lander – went out of control and he had to eject at the last second before it crashed in a ball of fire. Armstrong calmly walked away after the incident.
This wasn’t Armstrong’s only episode of sangfroid in the face of danger. When the Apollo 11 LEM Eagle came in for its final descent on the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969, things didn’t go quite to plan. There had already been a series of minor mishaps on the way down from lunar orbit. Eagle was four nautical miles (4.6 mi, 7.4 km) farther downrange than projected and alarms sounded five times due to a computer overload.
Seventy two seconds before landing, the fuel level dropped below the red line. Then it was like something exactly out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Armstrong saw that Eagle was coming down in a boulder-strewn crater and gambled the last of his fuel as he took the ship in on manual 1,100 feet (335 m) farther on. His first words on landing? A very calm “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
When Armstrong left the ladder of the LEM, he, like Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin, was rigged with medical telemetry pickups. As he took the biggest step since the first fish left the ocean, his heart rate was steady, strong and normal without a trace of undue excitement. Right stuff, indeed.
And if you want to put up the minimum bid of US$200, you could own the six-inch strip of EKG paper tape that recorded this that was saved by the Manager of Medical Administration for the Space Center.
This is pretty cool, but we can find ten more items that are pretty frosty as well and help to reveal a remarkable episode in human history. The race to put a man on the Moon wasn’t just a technical achievement or knocking down a goal like reaching the North Pole or conquering Everest. It was a major battle in the Cold War that proved a body blow to the Soviets as their efforts to reach the Moon ended in a horrifying launch pad explosion. It also opened up a new frontier that at the time seemed limitless with serious talk of lunar outposts by 1975 and Moon colonies and Mars expeditions by 1983.
While these didn’t come to pass, if Space Race-derived technology were to vanish today, our world would be half blind, partly deaf and very unsafe. The Space Race sparked a massive technological transformation and showcased remarkable episodes of human courage and ingenuity a quarter of a million miles from Earth.
The frustrating thing is, the Space Age left behind relatively little to collect. Most of the hardware that went up was destroyed or abandoned and what did come back was shunted off into museums by people who were all too aware that history was being made. It’s what makes auctions like this so interesting. So, let’s see what’s on the block and what they can tell us.
Apollo 9 EVA checklist
Apollo 9 went up on March 3, 1969 and though it didn’t go to the Moon like the previous Apollo 8, astronaut Deke Slayton believed Apollo 9 to be the boldest move in the Apollo program. Sent into Earth orbit, it was the first time a LEM was sent into space and its first manned flight.
With Commander James McDivitt, Command Module Pilot David Scott, and Lunar Module Pilot Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 highlighted the first docking and undocking between the LEM and the Command Service Module (CSM), as well as the first independent maneuvers by the LEM culminating in the separation of the lower Descent module and the manned Ascent Module returning to the CSM. The whole thing was a bit of a nail biter because this was the first time astronauts flew in a craft that couldn’t return to Earth if things went wrong.
This checklist up for auction was for a spacewalk by Schweickart and Scott to test the new Apollo spacesuits and collect experiments outside the LEM, which was cut short due to Schweickart’s suffering a bout space sickness. The list, complete with handwritten annotations and Velcro tabs, flew in the LEM Spider and covers the various tasks that the spacewalk involved.
Apollo 10 Flag
Apollo 10’s departure for the Moon on May 18, 1969 was the dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 landing. Where Apollo 8 went to the Moon with just the CSM, Commander Thomas P. Stafford, Command Module Pilot John W. Young and Lunar Module Pilot Eugene A. Cernan had a LEM along as well. The idea was to see how well the LEM operated in lunar orbit and how efficient NASA’s command and control system worked over such distances. During the mission, the CSM attained the highest speed ever by a manned vehicle at 39,897 km/h (11.08 km/s, 24,791 mph).
During the test phase in lunar orbit, the LEM Snoopy descended to 47,400 feet (14.4 km) above the lunar surface. The rehearsal was so similar to the real thing that NASA took the precaution of deliberately short fueling Snoopy’s Ascent stage just in case the crew were tempted to make a landing.
This particular bit of memorabilia is a printed fabric American flag that was carried by Apollo 10 and is signed by the crew.
Apollo 11 CM rotation control handle
Not surprisingly, memorabilia from the first lunar landing is in great demand, so RR Auction is keen to spotlight their star item, a rotation control handle from the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia. This gray contoured joystick-type hand controller grip measures 4.5 inches (11.4 cm) high with a black trigger-style push-to-talk communications switch located near the top. This particular grip is removably mounted on a walnut desk mount, along with the parts tag and an original Apollo 11 mission patch.
This handle is a bit like finding the helm from the HMS Beagle for sale. This particular one connects to one of the rotation control boxes in the CSM and was used to control the craft’s rolling, pitching and yawing. This handle has been identified as having been mounted on the right of center couch and would have been used by either Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin or Command Module Pilot Michael Collins where it acted as a back up to the Commander’s control.
Buzz Aldrin’s Constant Wear Garment
Manufactured in 1968, these space undies were issued to Buzz Aldrin for use during the Apollo 11 training and mission. They may look like long underwear, but this white cotton one-piece garment is designed to not only keep astronauts warm, but also to deal with the absorption and transport of sweat. It includes multiple openings and attachments at the midriff to integrate the bioinstrumentation harness that each crew member wore. It also had to be tailored to fit under both the flight coveralls and the A7L Spacesuit Pressure Garment Assembly. The latter is a water-cooled mesh coverall worn by astronauts to keep them from boiling in their spacesuit.
This particular garment didn’t actually fly on Apollo 11, but given that the crew had to wear their clothes for the duration of the mission without washing, this one is at least less pungent.
Apollo 12 PLSS cover
This 1.5-inch metal screw dust plug cover may not look like much, but it was part of one of the most vital bits of equipment carried by Apollo 12 to the lunar surface. The Portable Life Support System (PLSS) was the backpack for the A7L spacesuit worn by the Apollo astronauts and this cap protected one of its connector interfaces for the umbilical that ran between the pack and a remote control unit which was mounted on the astronaut's chest. This particular cap was fitted to the PLSS of either Mission Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad or Lunar Module Pilot Alan L. Bean and would have been removed while donning the spacesuit.
This cap was almost never removed because Apollo 12 was struck by lightning 36 seconds after launching from the Kennedy Space Center. The craft lost all AC electrical power, but mission control was able to solve a highly complex, split-second crisis by telling the crew the equivalent of “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”
Apollo 17 Rover schematic
It’s been over forty years, but Apollo 17 remains the last manned mission to the Moon. By 1972, with the Space Race won and public interest waning, the US government was unwilling to foot the bill for lunar outposts or Mars missions, so the Apollo program was cut short and the December 7 launch of Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt had the air of a frantic swan song as scientists tried to pack every experiment they could on to the schedule.
Even in three short years technology had advanced and the more powerful version of the LEM that later missions used now carried the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), or Lunar Rover, as part of its standard equipment. The Rover program cost $38,000,000 in 1960s dollars and only three of them flew, so this makes them, arguably, the most expensive cars ever built. However, being stripped-down, battery-powered electrics, their looks didn’t match the price tag.
The Rovers had a top speed of only 11.2 mph (18.0 km/h), so they weren’t speed demons, and they ran on wire-mesh tires because conventional rubber ones were both too heavy and would have gone flat almost instantly. They also kicked up a lot of lunar dust, which static electricity in the vacuum of space causes to stick to spacesuits and equipment.
The LRV schematic that’s up for bids on RR Auction was part of Apollo 17’s emergency equipment. It was carried under the Lunar module Pilot’s seat on the Rover and on one side has a diagram of the Rover’s electrical system and the communications system on the other. In the event of a breakdown, the crew would have used this schematic to try and fix the vehicle to avoid walking back to the LEM.
Oddly, the Rover did run into trouble and it wasn’t the schematic that fixed it, but the maps the crew carried. That’s because one of the fenders snagged on an astronaut’s geological sampling hammer and tore loose. The result was that driving the rover spewed dust everywhere. This was serious because removing the dust was time consuming and its dark color caused all sort of temperature problems as it absorbed the intense lunar sunlight.
To replace the lost fender, mission control came up with a design that involved four maps taped together and held in place with clamps from the portable utility lights. The tricky bit wasn’t just to jury rig something that would do the job, but also something that two men in pressure suits and thick-fingered gloves could cobble together – which they did in a surprisingly short time.
Apollo 17 Lunar orbital map
Maps for tooling around the lunar landscape weren’t the only ones carried by Apollo 17. Another one that’s up for sale is a lunar orbit chart that was used by the crew and is signed by Gene Cernan. It is also annotated with F-stop notes for camera photography of the lunar surface.
Lunar Traverse Gravimeter
A particularly cool item with a starting bid of a cool $5,000 is a Lunar Traverse Gravimeter. Apollo 17 was the only mission to carry one of these instruments which is used to measure gravity on the lunar surface in order to learn more about the Moon’s interior. It is one of only four in existence, with one these was left behind on the Moon by the Apollo 17 crew, so it won’t be on the market any time soon. The second is in the Smithsonian and the third is at Columbia University.
Apollo Lunar Module Flight Director Attitude Indicator (FDAI)
Another extremely rare item that’s up for grabs is an unflown Flight Director Attitude Indicator (FDAI) designed for the Lunar Module. It’s basically an aviator’s artificial horizon updated for operating in space to help the astronauts pilot the LEM. The pitch attitude is represented by the large semicircles horizontal to the numbers on the “eight ball,” the yaw attitude is represented by the small circles vertical relative to the numbers on the ball, and the pitch angle by the semicircle just under the “wing.”
The FDAI was originally supposed to be three separate instruments, but the astronauts lobbied for something more conventional in layout. Two of these would be installed in a LEM and RR Auction claims that this is the first to be offered for sale.
Lunar Module Thrust Translation Control Assembly (TTCA)
According to RR Auction, this is also is a first for an auction. It’s an unflown Translation Control Assembly (TTCA) built by Grumman and was designed to operate the thrusters used to control the direction the LEM flew in. The joystick allowed the pilot to make the Lunar Module fly forward, backward and sideways using the jets and it could also be used as a throttle to control the descent engine. Two of these would have been installed in the LEM and it was using a TTCA like this that Armstrong made that first daring landing back in 1969.
A total of 858 items are up for auction, which runs from May 16 to May 23.
The video below shows featured items from the auction.
Source: RR Auction
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