RUTLAND, Mass. — David Ursin pulls the pickup truck to the side of the road and gets out to check a loose strap on the trailer behind him, which holds a Gemini space capsule.
The reason Ursin is driving down the road with a Gemini space capsule is pretty simple: His Apollo capsule is too wide to fit on the trailer.
To move the Apollo, which sits under a brown tarpaulin in the backyard of his cluttered garage in Rutland, would require a huge trailer, chase vehicles, police permits, etc., and that’s expensive. This little hobby of his has already gotten out of hand. “It’s too much of a muchness,” as he likes to say.
Which is why he’s driving the Gemini toward a classic car and airplane show in Stow, hoping he can persuade someone with expensive tastes to shell out $65,000 for it.
For the Apollo capsule, a test model identical to those used on the historic moon missions, he’s looking for $95,000.
How Ursin, a 56-year-old transplant nurse from Holden, came to own two remarkable relics of American space history — there’s only one other of each in private hands anywhere — is a long story that began with a longtime love of tinkering and engineering, moved on to classic trucks, involved a tank or two, and culminated with a trade he couldn’t pass up.
As he drives the truck through Holden, Gemini in tow, he passes a man watering his flowers with a garden hose. When he sees the space capsule, his jaw hits the ground. The only thing missing is the cigarette falling from his mouth.
Ursin loves this. Any time he takes the Gemini on the road — twice he’s brought it to the MIT Radio Club flea market in Cambridge — he leaves comic double-takes in his wake, with people racing for their cameras.
As he pulls onto the highway and cars begin following him “like sea gulls behind a trawler,” Ursin explains that he was the kind of boy who grew up with his hands in engines, fiddling with things until they fell off and he had to figure out how to put them back together.
He said the tinkering started on an old military Jeep, moved on to classic trucks, and became such an obsession that, with all the late nights in his garage, his now ex-wife assumed there was another woman.
But he learned his stuff, he says, learned how to make smart buys, restore, and resell for profit. He was so good that even on a nurse’s modest salary — he works in the renal transplant unit at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester — he amassed a collection of 22 antique vehicles, including two tanks.
One day about 10 years ago, he put out the word that he had some spare tank parts and connected with a collector who owned a small museum in Indiana. They started talking trade, and the man mentioned that he had an Apollo test capsule floating out back in a pond that he’d be willing to part with.
All of a sudden, David Ursin turned into a little boy again, the 12-year-old who had watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on a tiny black-and-white TV in a farmhouse while at Boy Scout camp. He could feel himself doing something seasoned collectors do not do, which is to make an emotional buy.
So he learned everything he could about space capsules in an effort to rationalize going for it. “Finally, I just got to the point where I didn’t care if it was an emotional buy. It was too exciting. Every American boy wanted to be an astronaut or a cowboy, and the idea touched me deeply, in a childhood way.”
He traded the tank parts and an undisclosed amount of cash. When the Apollo arrived in Rutland in 2005 it was quite a spectacle. He rented a huge crane to get it into the yard near his garage, and the local police received so many calls about a “spaceship” dangling in the sky that they finally went out to investigate, only to be shocked to find that it was true.
That day, when he took off the hatch, climbed inside and sat down, he described it as a religious experience for an engineer-wannabe. “I was channeling that moon spirit, that feeling that you’re part of the ultimate problem-solving quest — to go to the moon.”
Then, four years ago, Ursin found a Gemini capsule for sale in the California desert. Its owner had died, and it was was sitting in a backyard next to a cemetery. He couldn’t resist.
Neither of the capsules actually went to space. All of those are in museums, and are considered priceless.
His capsules are the “boilerplate” versions, the first of three iterations of each capsule that were used by NASA to test everything from how they would behave under a parachute to how astronauts could extract themselves after splashdown. In the late 70s, they were sold off by NASA as surplus, and passed through the hands of a chain of collectors before ending up with Ursin.
As he pulls into Minuteman Airfield in Stow, there are more double takes. The organizers of the show, called Wings and Wheels, had no idea he was coming, but they are excited, if a little shocked. After some debate about where to put the spaceship, they park Ursin between the cars and the planes.
As soon as Ursin gets set up, Alex Spears, a 22-year-old from Stow, rushes up to him and gives him a high five. “Science!” she shouts.
For the next couple hours, the Gemini capsule is the star of the show, and Ursin is surrounded by people asking the same questions. “What is it?” “Where did you get it?” “Did it go to space?”
He is more than happy to oblige. He has a free-range intelligence, and speaks at the speed of light. At this point, could write an encyclopedia about space capsules.
And then there’s that other popular question, the one people ask when they see the handmade “For Sale” sign he has taped to the side of the Gemini. “Why are you selling it?”
There are several reasons. The first is he wants to help his daughter, Chelsea, pay for graduate school at Emerson College, where she’s studying to be a science writer. She arrives at the show in Stow, compliments her dad on the restoration — he’s just finished repainting it to its original condition — and tells him it looks better than the one in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, which she has recently visited.
Chelsea, 25, is also a musician, and spends a couple minutes drumming a percussive beat on the Gemini shell. “Before you sell it, we should record an album,” she says. “We can call it ‘Space Music.’ ”
But the chief reason Ursin wants to sell his capsules is that he recognizes that his space hobby has gotten out of hand. He’s tired of all the welding and grinding and painting, tired of looking at the $30,000 crane he bought so he could move the capsules. “When you need a crane for your hobby,” he says, “you know you have gone too far.”
In Stow, there’s plenty of action around the Gemini, lots of talk about wanting it — one man says he’d put it in his yard and decorate it with Christmas lights — but no one pulls out a checkbook. Which is fine, since Ursin’s real hope is to sell it to a museum, so more people can put their hand on a spaceship and feel the magic.
He will, of course, be sad to see them go, but says it is only human nature to move on to something new.
“You’re never happy with what you’ve got.”
In many ways, it is the sentiment that led mankind to shoot for the moon in the first place.Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.