This summer, photos of Pluto wowed the scientific community, but Larry McGlynn was busy framing his own small piece of space history.
McGlynn is the owner of the last jockstrap worn on the moon, an unusual artifact worth an estimated $10,000 and part of his vast collection of space memorabilia that includes spacesuits, flags, and flight logs of US and international space missions. McGlynn, 61, began collecting 55 years ago, when his brother’s school science project brought them to Raytheon Co., where they were given a piece of Mylar from the Echo satellite.
The jockstrap’s original owner, Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan, is a friend of McGlynn and gave it to him as a gag gift.
“He told me, ‘Normally I wouldn’t do something like this,’ ” McGlynn recalled, “ ‘but you’re just juvenile enough to get this.’ ’’
McGlynn, who owns an insurance company in Sudbury, is one of the foremost collectors and appraisers of NASA artifacts, and part of a burgeoning market for items that traveled to the final frontier. Over the past 20 years, the value of these items has exploded, McGlynn said; a star chart from Apollo 11 — the first lunar landing — that went for $500 in 1995 can command upward of $30,000 today.
RR Auction LLC, which specializes in rare documents, manuscripts, autographs, and historic artifacts, can attest to the growing interest in space exploration. In 2012, the Boston auction house sold Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott’s mission checklist for $364,000. The next year, RR Auction sold the space glove liner of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong, for $60,000 and a set of bibles carried on the Apollo 12, 13, and 14 missions for $130,000.
In May 2014, RR Auction sold its most expensive space item to date: an Apollo 15 hand controller, used to maneuver the Lunar Module Falcon to and from the moon, for $610,000.
“Without a doubt, the hottest market is space artifacts,” said Bobbie Livingston, executive vice president of RR Auction.
Space memorabilia accounted for about one-quarter of RR Auction’s $20 million in sales last year, driven by collectors competing for limited items flown on early space missions, Livingston said. Also in play is growing nostalgia among baby boomers who grew up watching the first men walk on the moon. “Now they have disposable income, and they want this inventory,” Livingston said.
The number of living artifacts — astronauts who set foot on the lunar surface — is also shrinking and contributing to the surge in interest. Of the 12 American men who walked on the moon, four, including Armstrong, have died. The rest are in their 80s.
The market is also rebounding from a setback in 2011, when NASA filed suit against astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the pilot of Apollo 14’s lunar module and the sixth man to walk on the moon. The agency said Mitchell could not sell a camera he used on his mission, claiming the device was government property and raising questions about the ownership of thousands of artifacts from NASA missions.
But in 2012 Congress passed a law granting Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts clear ownership over items they retained from their missions. Lunar materials — rocks and other samples — are still considered government property.
Still at issue, however, is whether artifacts belong in the hands of private collectors or museums. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford, who flew on Gemini 6 and Apollo 10, is an adviser to the Stafford Air & Space Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate that bears his name in Weatherford, Okla.
“I would hope that the things of real significance would be loaned [by collectors] to credible museums where people can see them and know their importance,” Stafford said. “They need to be displayed.”
Robert Pearlman, founder of collectspace.com, a Houston website for space enthusiasts, said museums and collectors were once at odds, but many now work together. Pearlman said today’s collectors are passionate researchers who dig through NASA’s archives and interview the inventors of various devices to document how they were built and what purpose they served.
As a result, many collectors, including Pearlman and McGlynn, often advise museum curators.
“Museums looked at collectors as hoarders, and collectors looked at museums, and particularly their archives, as hiding history,” Pearlman said. “That relationship has evolved over the past 15 years.”
For most collectors, finding, documenting, and buying space memorabilia is more than a financial investment — it’s a way to preserve history, recall a time when horizons seemed limitless, and rekindle dreams of adventures.
“It’s how we tell the story,” McGlynn said of collecting. “It’s researching the piece. The ’60’s were such a time of human exploration, and we don’t do that anymore.”
Lorne Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.