The History of Space Travel in 10 Objects

SOVIET FULL PRESSURE STRIZH RESCUE SPACESUIT.  Full pressure spacesuit, manufactured by NPP Zvedza, ca. 1988.  Olive flame-retardant nylon canvas with light blue and silver trim, inner pressure bladder of Kapron and resin, approximately 65 inches tall.  Est. $15,000-20,000
Soviet Strizh Rescue Spacesuit (1988) (all images courtesy Bonhams)

As our shuttles have gone into retirement and we look to the future of what space travel will mean for human exploration, there are plenty of artifacts left behind with which to examine the successes and failures of our journeying into beyond our atmosphere. On April 8, Bonhams auction house in New York is holding a Space History Sale with some 300 pieces that give a cross-section of this era.

The space sales are a frequent occurrence at Bonhams — for example, last year’s auction had its star item as an Apollo 13 burn note going for $84,100. Here’s a look at 10 objects, from cosmonaut weapons to groundbreaking photographs, from this year’s sale that offer a lens into the endeavors of space history.

Much of the space race was built out of rivalry — the United States versus the USSR. And the first object at the top of this post, the Strizh rescue suit from 1988, is a symbol of one of the last cosmonaut efforts before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was meant to be worn to protect its person from potential ejections from the Buran spacecraft. However, the program was canceled with the dissolution.

SPACE SUIT DEVELOPMENT PHOTOGRAPHS.  Collection of 70 photographs (67 black and white, 3 color), mostly 10 by 8 inches, 1960s  Est. $ 700 - 1,000
Space suit development photograph, one of a collection (1960s)

To jump back a few decades there are also these photographs of the development of the space suit, altering ideas of what was used in aviation for even more extremes.

MERCURY ERA SPACESUIT. Cover layer from a Phase 2 Mercury era space suit, with early model "widow's peak" helmet and gloves.  Est. $8,000-12,000
Cover layer from Phase 2 Mercury Era Spacesuit

Here’s what the United States ended up with for its first manned flights in the Mercury Program. The suit is basically a modification of the Mark IV altitude pressure suit used by the US Navy, with some thermal control adjustments.

COSMONAUT SURVIVAL MACHETE.  Large 14 inch machete consisting of a long 9 inch triangular blade having a sharpened fore-edge and head with a 4 ½ removable black rubber handle.  Est. $500-700
Cosmonaut Survival Machete

Yet survival at high altitudes was only part of the problem to solve, what about the way back down? The Russian Soyuz missions were extra prepared, each being equipped with a 14-inch Cosmonaut Survival Machete. This was in case of an unplanned remote landing, giving its wielder “the ability to cut brush and small trees, loosen soil, and defend against wild animals.”

LUNAR ORBITER I.  THE FIRST IMAGE OF THE EARTH AS SEEN FROM THE MOON.  Silver gelatin print, 13½ by 10½ inches, on Kodak paper. August 23, 1966.  Est. $1,000-2,000
First image of the Earth as seen from the moon, taken by Lunar Orbiter I, Silver gelatin print, 13½ by 10½ inches, on Kodak paper, August 23, 1966

Before humans stepped onto the moon, the Lunar Orbiter I went up and took the first photograph of the Earth from its rocky neighbor. The way this was transmitted back with early photographic technology was pretty incredible. A Kodak camera was onboard the orbiter, and would take a wide-angle and telephoto image with each exposure through two lenses with 70 mm film. This film was processed by orbiter itself, which was then put through an analog scanner that sent information to Earth over radio, with the “video signal” interpreted into variations in light that were reproduced in 35 mm film, with the image you see here.

APOLLO 7 HASSELBLAD COLOR FILM POSITIVES.  A strip of duplicate positives in color from the astronauts' Hasselblad cameras. October 22, 1968.  Est. $400-600
Apollo 7 Hasselblad Color Film Positives, October 22, 1968

The images got much clearer when humans launched into space through the Apollo program. These images from 1968 during the Apollo 7 mission show different cloud formations over the Earth oceans. What’s remarkable is that there was just one 70 mm camera onboard the module that took 533 exposures — there was no room for even the most minor error.

COLLINS' FLOWN CREW-SIGNED APOLLO 11 EMBLEM.  Flown Apollo 11 crew mission emblem, 3½ inches in diameter, printed on Beta cloth, 6 inches square.  Est. $40,000-60,000
Collins’ Flown Crew-Signed Apollo 11 Emblem

This little emblem is estimated at auction for between $40,000-60,000. Why such a price that soars above whole spacesuits? Well, this belonged to Michael Collins. You might know the astronaut’s team members Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin better, but Collins is the one who orbited the module during the lunar landing. You can see his scrawl at the top: “Carried to the moon aboard Apollo XI, July 1969,” and they brought back their own “earthrise” photograph.

MOTION PICTURE RING SIGHT USED ON THE MOON DURING APOLLO 15.  Flown Maurer DAC (Data Acquisition Camera) sighting ring. Circular metal ring, 1¼ inches in diameter with an optical component at the center.   Est. $20,000-30,000
Motion Picture Ring Sight Used on the Moon During Apollo 15

By the time the Apollo 15 mission launched, imaging technology was more sophisticated, but even the new motion picture camera required a bit of velcro, which you can still see at the top of this Ring Sight. As Bonhams states, it’s “perhaps the only lunar surface ring sight still in private hands,” and was used to capture the pocked surface of the moon on 16 mm film.

MIR SPACE STATION CONTROL PANEL.  A KEY PIECE OF HARDWARE FROM THE MIR SPACE STATION.  Control panel, aluminum and steel painted light blue, with plastic push buttons, glass light panels, digital display.  Provenance: Displayed at the 2000 World's Fair in Hannover, Germany as part of the Russian MIR Toru Control Centre exhibit.  Est. $4,000-6,000
MIR Space Station Control Panel

Jumping ahead and away from imaging, there’s also this relic of the MIR Space Station, one of the longer duration space stations that had a 12 and a half year run in orbit. It was deorbited in 2001 and incinerated in the atmosphere. However, pieces of it survive, such as this little light blue panel that was part of the TORU docking system. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always smooth sailing: “The system was famously used in the disastrous docking attempt of the Russian unmanned cargo spacecraft Progress M-34, which collided with the MIR space station in 1997.”

THE AEROASSIST FLIGHT EXPERIMENT MODEL.  Large two part high-fidelity prototype model of the Aeroassist Flight Experiment (AFE) vehicle made of metal, painted wood, and plastic.   Scale 1:20.  Est. $ 6,000 - 8,000
The Aeroassist Flight Experiment Model

Last, here is a model of a space future that never was — or at least hasn’t arrived yet. The plans for this futuristic spacecraft go back to the 1980s, although it’s only been realized in a metal, wood, and plastic model at a 1:20 scale. Perhaps in the coming decades we can finally have some relics from a propelled space exploration that will take us further than before, and the space auctions will surely be waiting for the relics.

The Space History Sale is April 8 at Bonhams in New York (580 Madison Avenue, Manhattan). A preview will be held April 5–8. 

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