The Bloc on the Block

By Jeffrey Kluger|Friday, April 01, 1994
RELATED TAGS: SPACE FLIGHT
There was a time when nobody would have put money on the United States to win the space race. When the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit on October 4, 1957, Americans reacted like any sophisticated, high-tech society would, pulling the children into the house, donning enchanted headdresses, and performing anti-Sputnik dances around the village campfire at night. In the years that followed, the Soviets continued to leave the Americans in the celestial dust, successfully placing the first dog in space, the first man in space, and the first woman in space, and later performing the first space walk, the first space jog, sprint, arabesque, and plié.

Those days, however, are gone: the Soviets conceded the race long ago, and in the last few years the Soviet Union itself has gone the way of the air traffic controllers' union, while the Red Menace has proved less threatening than Dennis. As communism has collapsed across Europe and Asia, and Russian currency has been recycled into Post-it Notes and moist towelettes, the space program has become a luxury Russia can barely afford. That does not mean, however, that there is not still cash to be made in the space business. Last December 11, Sotheby's auction house in New York conducted the largest--nay, only--sale of space memorabilia since the dawn of the satellite age. Put on the block that day were 235 relics of the Soviet space program, ranging from photographs to space suits to whole space capsules. Sotheby's and the former Soviets had hoped to raise between $5 million and $7 million from the sale; when the last gavel fell on the last item, over $6.8 million had changed hands.

The idea of putting relics of the Russian space race on the block was the brainchild of David Redden, a senior vice president of Sotheby's. Redden had been reading an article about a company that was selling the services of Russian rocket-launching facilities when it occurred to him that if marketing the use of space hardware could bring in money, marketing the hardware itself could bring in even more. Working with Peter Batkin, a director of Sotheby's London office and a man who has traveled extensively through Russia hunting for Soviet souvenirs, Redden flew to Moscow and invited cosmonauts, engineers, and others connected with the space program to bring him any cosmic keepsakes for an appraisal.

"We knew that a lot of space artifacts were already in private hands," says Redden. "Cosmonauts were often allowed to keep papers, photographs, and other souvenirs as mementos of their contribution to the program. What's more, since the fall of communism, some of the state industries that manufacture the capsules, suits, and other hardware have been privatized. Both the companies and the cosmonauts, we figured, would have a lot to sell."

Redden and Batkin figured right. The day of the sale, Sotheby's fairly overflowed with Soviet space treasures. On the stage at the front of the auction hall, three space suits--one of them a lunar suit intended for the Soviet moon walk that never took place--were on display. A fourth suit, once used by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov to train for the world's first space walk, hung from the ceiling. At the center of the stage was a rotating platform on which, it was announced, hundreds of smaller items would be displayed. The two biggest artifacts--the Kosmos 1443 and Soyuz TM-10 space capsules--were sitting on Sotheby's loading dock, waiting to be shipped to their future owners.

One of the first items to go under the hammer was lot number 10, the affectionately named Ivan Ivanovich, a full-size cosmonaut mannequin dressed in an orange pressure suit. Ivanovich was well loved in the Soviet Union because of a single heroic flight he made 33 years ago. On March 23, 1961--20 days before Yuri Gagarin, aboard an identical Vostok capsule, became the first human being in space--Ivanovich flew into orbit in a full- dress rehearsal for Gagarin's flight. Like Gagarin, Ivanovich was intended to return to Earth not in the ocean but in the snows of the Russian countryside; and like Gagarin, he would parachute out of his spacecraft before it hit the ground. In the event that the faintly smiling Ivan was found by local peasants before government rescue teams could reach him, a stern warning was painted on his helmet: DO NOT TOUCH--REPORT IMMEDIATELY TO THE LOCAL ORGANS OF POWER.

As it turned out, it was a good thing the message was there. Ivan was launched late in the morning on March 23, and at about 2 P.M., after his planned single orbit, he thumped safely down in a remote snowbank 50 miles from the city of Izhevsk.

"The Earth seemed to have been expecting this to happen," wrote V. P. Efimov, who served on the rescue team that retrieved Ivan. "Centenarian trees looked as if they had just parted to leave a small clearing, and in its middle, slightly reclining on one side, in deep snow, there was the orange-colored hero."

At about the same time government paratroopers arrived to rescue Ivan, local villagers arrived, too, and seeing a form lying in the middle of the clearing, they came forward to lend assistance. The paratroopers assured them that Ivan didn't need any help, but the Soviet samaritans were unpersuaded. Finally, Efimov writes, "the incident was settled after the crowd of 'old believers' delegated their senior, who, showing an extreme dignity, walked unhurriedly across the paratrooper-trampled ground toward the reclining figure and touched the rubbery, cold face of the dummy- cosmonaut."

Though Ivanovich might have been a hero in Russia, in the United States he apparently needs a good agent. Sotheby's presale estimate for the simulated spaceman was an optimistic $200,000 to $250,000. The bidding started off spiritedly enough but stalled at around $150,000 and eventually topped out at $189,500. Ivan, who had been through much worse in his 33 years, sat quietly throughout, unmoved by all the lowballing.

If lot 10 failed to live up to Sotheby's expectations, lot 40-- the space suit used by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov when he was training for his Voskhod 2 space walk in March 1965--greatly exceeded them. The auction catalog went to great pains to describe the fashionable ensemble it was offering for sale ("a white ribbed twill nylon oversuit with orange trim, dual front zip closure, ribbed-knit collar and cuffs . . . [and] channel- quilted white leather laced boots"). No doubt an even more dramatic design might have attracted even more bidders ("Alexei is wearing a glamorous off- the-shoulder pressure suit with a scoop neck, drop waist, and daring, sling-back moon boots"), but the heroic nature of Leonov's flight was more than enough to make this one of the hottest lots of the day.

The flight of Voskhod 2 is best known for the 12 history-making minutes Leonov spent outside his capsule attached to a 17-foot tether, but the mission also included one of the most perilous touchdowns in the history of spaceflight. When Leonov and his fellow cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev, were preparing to reenter the atmosphere, they realized that their automatic guidance system was not working and that they would have to steer their spacecraft down to Earth manually. Like most guys behind the wheel, Belyayev absolutely refused to stop and ask for directions on the way down, so when the capsule came to rest in the snows of the Ural Mountains, he and Leonov found themselves 1,000 miles off course.

Since it would take rescue crews until the next day to reach the lost capsule, the cosmonauts collected wood, lit a fire in the snow, and camped out for the night. History does not record whether the Ural forests were subsequently filled with endless choruses of "100 Bottles of Stolichnaya on the Wall," but if there was any such revelry, it came to an end quickly. Shortly after the two cosmonauts got their fire lit, they heard a growling in the woods, and a Russian bear--which evidently did not want to wait around until they got to "If I Had a Hammer"--burst into the clearing. Belyayev and Leonov fled back to their Voskhod, slammed the hatch, and spent the remainder of the evening shivering inside and waiting for the rescue team to arrive. Sotheby's, showing a healthy respect for the crew's heroism, pegged the value of Leonov's training suit at $80,000 to $120,000. A bidder, showing even more, eventually bought it for $255,500.

Just as enthusiastically received was lot 52, the first orbital chess set, carried aloft to help break up the tedium of long space flights. Of course, zero gravity can do funny things to chess pieces, and even the most experienced players could find themselves making such unplanned moves as "queen's rook to ceiling." To solve the problem, the Soviets designed a chess set with plastic pieces mounted on aluminum posts that slid in grooves around an acrylic board. In a capitalist society, such an innovation would no doubt have led to other board games adapted for orbital use ("Let's see, is it Comrade Mustard in the Orion nebula with the flange wrench?"). In Soviet spaceships, however, chess remained the recreation of choice, and for Western bidders that was evidently good enough. Sotheby's auctioneers hoped to get between $1,500 and $2,000 for lot 52; they got $34,500.

Also doing extremely well on the Sotheby's block was Soviet space mail. Ever since 1979, when NASA's Skylab fell to Earth, showering the Australian outback with its debris and necessitating a formal, high-level apology from State Department diplomats (Heh-heh. Oops), the United States has had little luck with space stations. The Russians, on the other hand, have maintained an almost constant presence in orbit, first with their modest Salyut space stations, then with the big, ambitious Mir. For long- duration flights aboard the station, the crews need some contact with their relatives back on Earth, and flight planners thus arrange for mail to be carried back and forth, ferried either by unmanned cargo ships bringing other supplies or by additional cosmonauts coming up to relieve members of the crew. On sale at Sotheby's were a number of such orbital epistles. The letters reveal that extended spaceflight can be just a little more taxing than a weekend at Grossinger's.

"In general, the presence of a woman greatly limits the freedom at the station and complicates the daily life," Anatoly Berezovoy complained to his wife in 1982, shortly after he and crewmate Valentin Lebedev were joined in orbit by Leonid Popov, Aleksandr Serebrov, and Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman to fly in space. "We have assigned her one of the two transport ships for physical needs, but she sleeps with us inside the station. I believe that for us (at least for me) it will be difficult to continue to complete the mission in the remaining two months, but it has to be done and so will be done. . . . Serebrov and Savitskaya are like a cat and a dog. Sasha [Serebrov] has turned out to be one of those people who like to whisper gossip about their friends (in this case about Svetlana). I am putting up with it all, and think [I] will keep it up like this till the end."

Sotheby's appraised Berezovoy's Hello-Muddah-Hello-Faddah missive at $2,000 to $3,000, but it ultimately sold for $19,550. A packet of other letters, hand-carried between two ships during a space walk in 1969, was valued at $18,000 and went for $123,500.

Far and away the most popular item Sotheby's sold all day was lot 68, the Russian moon rocks. Like the United States, the Soviet Union once had an aggressive lunar program. But technical problems caused the manned part of the program to be scrapped. Instead the Soviets relied on unmanned probes, if only so Russian geologists would not be forced to look hungrily at NASA's sample dishes and ask, " 'Scuse me, are you going to finish that basalt?" In 1970, 14 months after America's Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquillity, the Soviets' Luna 16 touched down in the Sea of Fertility, dug out a lunar core sample, and flew it back to Earth. At Sotheby's, three tiny pebbles from that sample, encased in glass and mounted on a metal plaque, were placed on sale.

Displayed on the rotating stage at the front of the auction hall, the modest plaque was extremely difficult to see, and the gravel inside was all but invisible. The picture in the catalog wasn't much more impressive: the three bits of rubble looked like nothing so much as three lunar Grape- Nuts. Nevertheless, as the catalog pointed out--in all capital letters-- THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THAT A SAMPLE FROM ANOTHER WORLD IS BEING OFFERED TO THE PUBLIC. Sotheby's had estimated that the space rocks would go for $30,000 to $50,000, but when the five fierce minutes of bidding were over, the final price was $442,500.

None of the other lots offered for sale spawned as much interest as the lunar rubble, but all had their selling points. There was lot 68A, which provided title to--but, understandably, not possession of--Luna 21 and Lunokhod 2, robot spacecraft both now resting comfortably on the moon's Sea of Rains. The catalog explained that "there has never before been a sale of a man-made object located on another celestial body," and in view of the special conditions, Redden, acting as auctioneer, reminded bidders that Sotheby's was only selling title to the vehicles and was, most assuredly, not promising delivery. Despite these disclaimers, the ownership papers for the two spacecraft went for $68,500. Next year, so rumors have it, Sotheby's is also considering selling fishing rights on the lost island of Atlantis and plots of land for commercial development in Oz.

Then there were lots 154 and 175, the Kosmos 1443 and Soyuz TM-10 space capsules. Sotheby's hoped to get top dollar for these artifacts, and the catalog included photographs of some of the ships' more interesting details in an effort to spark the bidding. (One photo showed the message stenciled in Russian and English next to the Soyuz's exterior hatch, in case the spacecraft was found by a passerby before recovery teams could reach it: MAN INSIDE! HELP! OPEN THE HATCH! TAKE THE KEY! PUT INTO THE HOLE!) Sadly, the urgency of this message was not matched by the urgency of the bidding: Soyuz TM-10, which Sotheby's had hoped would go for $3 million to $5 million, fetched just $1,652,500; Kosmos 1443, with a sticker price of $600,000 to $800,000, left the showroom floor for $552,500.

Sotheby's has not yet said whether it plans another such auction anytime in the future, but with Russia's spiraling financial woes and with more than 35 years of space memorabilia to sell, there should be no shortage of lots to tempt future buyers. There is the Russian space shuttle Buran, which flew just once and could now make a handsome lawn ornament, provided you have a lawn the size of Kyrgyzstan. There is the heavy-lift Energia launch vehicle, the perfect Valentine gift for the sweetheart dreaming of placing large payloads in low Earth orbit. There are the remains of any number of unused gantries, from Salyut's to Vostok's to Elmer's. For a happily capitalist place like Sotheby's, there should always be more than enough of the hammer and sickle to go under the hammer.
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