[Editor's note: This story was originally published on August 16, 2012. We're resurfacing it this week as part of our tribute to the great feature work that writer Wes Fenlon has done with Tested, as he embarks on his new career in games journalism.]
People tend to miss it, when they first walk into Robert Pearlman's office; their eyes are immediately drawn to the glass display cases full of astronaut flight suits, or the decades-old dehydrated food packets, or the bits of parachutes used to lower space capsules into the ocean half a century ago. He might tell them about the ballpoint pen he has that was used by astronauts on Skylab for two months in 1973, or a pressure glove worn into space by Russian cosmonaut Ulf Merbold in a 1994 Soyuz mission.
But at some point, visitors will turn around and see it resting against a wall: a four-foot-by-four-foot, 200 pound hatch built for the International Space Station.
The giant slab of metal "definitely monopolizes the conversation from that point forward," said Pearlman, whose home in Houston, Texas doubles as an office for CollectSPACE, a website he established in 1999. The ISS hatch--officially called a "common berthing mechanism hatch"--is one of only two in private hands. Pearlman is one of those two thanks to a CollectSPACE community member, who spotted the hatch in a Huntsville, Alabama recycling yard. Pearlman paid to have the hatch shipped to his home in Houston, Texas, where it now sits among 15 glass display cases and boxes of space artifacts there's simply no room to display.
Pearlman's collection comes with the job--or, perhaps more accurately, his job was born out of an endless passion for all things space. In 2003, he turned CollectSPACE into a full-time occupation, covering space history, current events (like the recent landing of Mars Rover Curiosity, which he witnessed from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California), and, of course, memorabilia.
CollectSPACE's message board serves as a home for space fans like Pearlman. Despite its attachment to one of the most important endeavors in human history, the hobby of space collecting had no real organization in the 70s, 80s and 90s. "There weren't conferences. There weren't conventions," said Pearlman. "[Collecting] really was in small pockets around the country."
Pearlman and I talked about how the Internet changed that, and how CollectSPACE grew to reach a readership of 4.5 million. But mostly he talked about artifacts of the space program, the rarest pieces every collector dreams of owning, and the magic ingredient that turns any relic into a must-have: moon dust.
CollectSPACE: From Hobby to Communal Home
Like most kids, Robert Pearlman wanted to be an astronaut. Unlike most kids, he went to Space Camp six times. You could say he was into it. But growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s, Pearlman didn't have much access to like-minded people.
"There were a couple of American companies that had put together catalogs, mostly autographs and patches, not so much artifacts, that they would then sell to the subscribers of Sky and Telescope magazine or Astronomy magazine," he said. "I can credit [Final Frontier] magazine for giving birth to my own interest in space memorabilia as a kid. They profiled another collector, a gentleman named Ken Havekotte, in Florida. I read that article several times over before writing Ken and saying 'I didn't even know you could collect! I love space, I live in New Jersey, I don't have anything around me space related. how do I get started?'
"A few weeks later a box arrived that was packed with all kinds of space memorabilia, patches and pins and a little bit of flown items and autographs and a letter from Ken saying 'the best advice I can offer you is go through this box, find what fascinates you the most, and specialize, specialize, specialize, or it'll take over your world.' "
Pearlman joked that he now specializes in many different areas, but collecting has undoubtedly taken over his world. It's also given him a career. As a college student in the mid-90s, he built a website for Buzz Aldrin. Around the time he established CollectSPACE in 1999, Pearlman also worked for Space.com. At the time, CollectSPACE.com was simply a side project, an HTML playground that Pearlman was also using to catalog his small collection while preparing for a move.
Then something weird happened: someone else found the site.
"About two weeks after I created [CollectSPACE] in 1999 I got an email saying 'hey, this is great, are you going to continue doing this and producing more content?' and I was really completely surprised that anyone had found the site," Pearlman said. "This was well before Google existed or was indexing the web. We were not listed in Yahoo's web directory at the time. As far as I know, we weren't really in any search engines, so I never figured out how that email got to me."
The email included links to a few online discussion groups housing groups of collectors, but they were all isolated from one another. So CollectSPACE got its own message board, some tools aimed at collectors, and a resource guide, things that exist on the site to this day. Through word of mouth, the site grew from an initial member pool of 10 posters to 100 and then 1000. Fast forward to today: CollectSPACE's message board is home to 75,000 members. 250,000 people visit the site, and 4.5 million read its regular updates through syndication with other websites.
Pearlman moved from New York to Houston, Texas in 2003 to make CollectSPACE his full-time job. Naturally, his collection has grown, just a little bit, since he started the site in 1999.
"In college it was a milk crate," he said. "By the time I started the site I probably had a bookshelf of memorabilia." Today it's 15 display cases, and then some--Pearlman now lends pieces out to museums, and his boxes and shelves of artifacts aren't just a personal collection. They're the CollectSPACE collection, and a resource to be shared. And there are some pretty cool relics on those shelves.
The Moon Is King
"I have a history of space food collection which spans from the Mercury days all the way through the International Space Station," Pearlman said, when I asked him to describe some of the most interesting pieces in his home. "Within that collection I have the full meal that Jim Lovell would've had for dinner on day eight of Apollo 13 if the explosion had not occurred, but because the explosion did occur and they were returning to the Earth on an emergency situation, power was shut down to much of their systems so they did not rehydrate most of the food they had on board."
Pearlman tells me about the prototype Coca-Cola can he has, which took millions of dollars to develop and ended up producing "carbonless, rather bad-tasting drinks." Coca Cola's interest "was scientific," Pearlman added. "As it turns out, astronauts tastes' take on similar qualities to the aging process in a very short time. Coca-Cola's own market research found that people in their younger lives enjoy the taste of Coca-Cola, but when they become older, especially senior citizens, do not. They were hoping that by using astronauts they could develop a Coca-Cola drink that would taste good for astronauts and their older customers."
Upset by Coke's publicity, Pepsi petitioned NASA for the same opportunity and quickly whipped up a design by pressurizing soda inside a shaving cream can. They didn't fare any better.
"I grew up during the space shuttle program, that was my program," Pearlman continued. "I've pulled together a lot of artifacts from the space shuttle. Space shuttle tiles. What's called a frangible nut, one of the large, titanium nuts which would've held together tie-down posts on the launch pad that basically held the shuttle to the launch pad until it was time to launch. An explosive charge would go off, cracking the nut in half. One half would fall back onto the pad, the other half fell into a container on the solid rocket boosters and take the ride with the solid rocket boosters. The half that I have is from the half that actually rode with the vehicle on the mission to deploy the Hubble space telescope in 1990."
Frangible nuts are typically given in pairs to the astronaut crew as launch souvenirs. "They make bookends," Pearlman says. "I would say they're about four inches tall by about three inches deep by maybe six inches wide. They may weigh 10 to 15 pounds."
From the Russian space program, Pearlman owns Soyuz gloves, a pair of Adidas worn on space station Mir, and a Translational Hand Controller used to pilot a spacecraft.
An artifacts page on CollectSPACE lists dozens of items in Pearlman's collection that have actually been in space (and another page links to many other collectors, who have amazing collections of their own). Back when Havekotte told him to specialize, he decided that flown items were his favorite. These items are much rarer than collectibles and memorabilia--models, patches, autographed paraphernalia, pins, postcards, stamps and so on. Those pieces can still be rare, and there are certainly collectors who love them. But artifacts have that special cachet. They are pieces of history.
"Things that have been to the surface of the moon or into lunar orbit with a manned crew are considered the Holy Grail amongst collectors," Pearlman said. "Anything that's been to the surface of the moon that's been outside the spacecraft and actually picked up some lunar dust is the pinnacle. NASA took the patches off of their space suits and presented it back to the astronauts as they official momentos. Well, for the men who walked on the moon, those patches were covered with moon dust. An item like that, that was not only on the surface of the moon but on the body of an astronaut, covered in moon dust, but also easily seen in every picture taken from that mission, are amongst the top items that all collectors would like to own."
Acquiring those pieces isn't easy for a simple reason: they're all government property.
Collecting Grows Into Its Own
"With anything that's owned by the government, it is government property until the government says it's no longer government property," Pearlman said. "With regards to the key pieces like intact space suits, no you could not get ahold of those. The government not only viewed them as important to the program, they viewed them as important to history. All the space suits were offered to the Smithsonian first, and then if the Smithsonian didn't want or have need for it, the Smithsonian or NASA would turn to other museums around the country."
Of course, pieces have become available over the years. In some cases, astronauts were allowed to keep bits of their suits, like patches, or other equipment from the spacecraft that was going to be thrown away. In the early Mercury and Gemini programs, astronauts weren't allowed to keep much--they could store a few small items in a "personal preference kit," fly them to space, and return with them as souvenirs.
NASA certainly allowed some keepsakes. When Alan Shepard returned to Earth as the first American in space in 1961, the crew were invited to snip off a piece of his capsule's parachute. Pearlman has a section, of course.
Apollo astronauts could keep more, but there were still strict restrictions on what could return to Earth in the shuttle. "There was a primary concern, and the astronauts knew this, about the weight that would be aboard the spacecraft on the return to Earth," Pearlman said. "So this wasn't willy-nilly just go around and pull things off the spacecraft and stuff them into your pockets. For larger items, they did need to get it documented so that the planners could plan on them bringing back excess weight."
Little by little, astronauts accrued artifacts as personal items, often keeping pieces of equipment that would've been tossed (or even left on the moon). Eventually, as they grew older, they auctioned off their collections, and those artifacts are far more accessible today thanks to the trading power of the Internet. But increased visibility has its disadvantages, too.
"In the early days of our program we...did everything in front of the world, "Pearlman said. "The people who worked on it were encouraged to take souvenirs at points. As we advanced, and the government matured and Ebay came into existence, the net exposed this hobby for how wide and expansive they were, the government started to crack down....Today the astronauts are under very tight control about what they can and cannot keep. No employee of NASA can go and just snip off a piece of the spacecraft."
Things developed very differently in Russia.
"The two programs sort of followed in opposite paths for awhile," Pearlman said. "The beginnings of the Soviet programs, that was a military program. If you were caught snipping off anything from any spacecraft whatsoever, no matter who you were, that was an offense that could land you in Siberia, if not worse. There weren't a lot of collectibles at the beginning of the Soviet program, not actual hardware.
"When the Soviet Union fell and democracy and more importantly capitalism was embraced within Russia, there was a period where you could purchase just about anything. You could get spacecraft and space suits and there were two very very large auctions run by Sotheby's in the mid-90s where this was russian space program itself auctioning off some of its most historic pieces. Then as we got into the early 2000s, Russia sort of realized they were letting their history walk out the doors of their country. So they slowed it down a bit.
"Today, it's still easier to find Soviet examples or Russian examples of modern hardware, but when you go back to the earlier hardware, I would never call a piece of Apollo common, but it's easier to source a piece of Apollo if you have the right amount of money than something from the earlier Soviet programs."
As artifacts have become more accessible, and as the Internet has fashioned space collectors into a strong community, the conventions and conferences have come into being. Spring and fall are active auction seasons for Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Bonham's in New York, Regency Superior in Sacramento, and Lunar Legacies online. SpaceFest and The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation bring collectors, historians and astronauts together.
And thanks to sites like CollectSPACE, it's easy to join the collecting community even if there are no sites nearby and it's still easy to acquire some pretty awesome artifacts. CollectSPACE's Buy/Sell/Trade forum dwarfs the rest of its message board. Regulars like Ken Havekotte (whose collection is much larger than Pearlman's, I'm told) regularly chime in to help evaluate recently discovered treasures.
"Every so often you get a knock your socks off, fall off your chair moment," Pearlman said. "Someone writes in and says 'My grandfather...served in the program, and here is the harness that was used to hoist Alan Shepard out of the water.' And they're not asking about price, they're asking "is this of interest to anybody?" My first response is "Yes, yes, please! I can give you a long list of people this would be of interest to.
We've had situations where the guy who built the part originally get in touch with the owner who now owns it, and the astronaut who used it, and the museum curator who is receiving it from the collector who recovered it. And they're all talking to each other and rediscovering the history of these pieces in a detail that's greater than they were ever documented back in the day. At the time they were flying with these items, it wasn't an artifact, it wasn't history, it was just the item doing this for the mission to work. But now, that was the piece that made this history possible, and there's a whole greater richer history within that. A story to tell. It's no longer just about collecting space artifacts, it's about collecting the stories behind them, and in some cases those are even a richer treasure than the artifacts will ever be."
All photographs courtesy Robert Pearlman