"For 10,000 American dollars, this suit can show up on your front porch after the mission."
Astronaut Clayton Anderson thought it was an absurd proposal. He never expected that a spacesuit technician would offer to sell him the custom-fitted, government-funded suit that he would soon carry to the International Space Station (ISS). Anderson laughed it off. Surely this guy was joking, right? Nothing like this had ever happened during one of Clay's suit fittings in the US. But this strange proposal was presented in Star City, Russia. And well, things are different there…very different.
Several years passed before Anderson realized that he should have taken the deal.
About the Suit
The suit up for grabs was a Sokol (Falcon). This Russian-designed pressure suit is worn during launch and landing in the Soyuz spacecraft. There was no plan for Anderson to ride a Soyuz up or down (he commuted to and from the ISS on space shuttle missions STS-117 and STS-120 respectively). Yet, he still needed a Sokol. During the bulk of his 152-day stay aboard the ISS, a Soyuz was his only way home in an emergency. Anderson's Sokol stored on the ISS ensured that he would be properly attired if the lifeboat became necessary.
As things turned out, Clay did don his Sokol and catch a ride on a Soyuz. One could argue that this happened under the best imaginable circumstances. There was no emergency. Rather than abandoning the ISS, the crew had to "simply" move the Soyuz to a different docking port to make room for other incoming ships. In these scenarios, the entire 3-person crew (the ISS now hosts a crew of 6) would board the Soyuz. This ensured that no one would be left behind if the ship was unable to re-dock with the ISS. If that were to happen, they would turn around and head for a landing in Russia.
Anderson's Soyuz had no trouble reconnecting with the ISS. The entire flight lasted only about 20 minutes. That's a good thing since he says the Sokol is rather uncomfortable to wear…especially within the cramped confines of a Soyuz. Clay recalled mandatory training sessions in a pressurized Sokol at Star City, which he said had elements of "excruciating pain". "It's a rite of passage," he says.
Possession is 9/10
Years after Anderson completed his long-term ISS stint, he learned that some of his fellow astronauts had kept their Sokol gloves as trophies. They apparently squirrelled away the gloves with their personal belongings during preparations to return home from the ISS. Some did this at the invitation of their Russian crewmates. Others did it more secretively.
Russian officials eventually heard the same stories and demanded that all of the pilfered gloves be given back. According to Anderson, NASA was able to work out a deal with the Russians to keep the gloves in the US under temporary loan. Clay adds, "They're never going to give them back. It's a 'permanent' temporary loan."
Clay asked NASA to pull the same strings to get his Sokol gloves shipped to the US. As the only astronaut to ever come out of Nebraska, he felt strongly that the gloves should be displayed at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum in his hometown of Ashland. His arguments were sound. First of all, the gloves are custom-fitted to his hands and have an expiration date. There was little chance that they would be of use to anyone in Star City. And didn't NASA pay Roscosmos (Russia's space agency) a handsome sum for his training and equipment? Why would Russia keep hardware that was funded by US tax-payers?
Anderson says his pleas fell on deaf ears. "I got very little support." He eventually gave up any hope of ever seeing his Sokol gloves again.
The eBay Connection
Fast forward to 2015. By this point, Anderson had retired from NASA. A colleague sent Clay an email that would kickstart his reunion with the Sokol he had worn in space. "I clicked on the link. It was an eBay auction and MY gloves were in the photo." The initials "KA" stamped on the outside of the gloves left little doubt that they were Anderson's former mitts ("Clayton" is spelled with a Cyrillic "K" in Russia).
The best Anderson could tell, the gloves were located in Russia. "The site came up in English, but the seller had a Russian name, Maxim. I think he is located in Russia, but I couldn't really tell you. All of that stuff is black magic to me."
Anderson talked it over with his wife, Susan, and they decided to buy the gloves. He was concerned that he might lose out in a bidding war, so he chose the "Buy-It-Now" price of $4,000. "I was nervous, because I don't do eBay. I started thinking, 'What if I just sent four grand to this guy and he sends me nothing?'"
Thankfully, the deal went through as planned. Clay says that the gloves arrived in good condition. "I looked at them for a day. Then I put them back in the box and shipped them directly to the SAC Museum." After years of fruitless effort, Clay finally found a way to get his Sokol gloves in a museum. Money proved to be a much more effective catalyst than diplomacy.
Completing the Package
Once the gloves were safely stored at the museum, Clay began to consider other possibilities. "I thought, 'If this guy, Maxim, has access to my gloves, maybe he has access to my suit.' So I asked the question." The Russian broker did indeed have the full Sokol worn by Anderson…minus the gloves he had already purchased. The complete package included the suit, backup gloves, underwear, patches, Clay's nametag, and boots meant to be worn over the Sokol while boarding a Soyuz for launch (also custom-sized for Clay). Anderson could have it all as a bundled deal. The price: $50,000.
"Maybe it was a stupid thing to say, but I told him, 'I want it!' I'm not very astute as a negotiator or an eBay buyer. So, I said 'Give me some time to raise the money. But I WILL raise the money and I WILL buy that suit.'"
After the initial price agreement, Anderson reached out to museums and individuals who already had Sokols in their possession. The goal was to perform a rough valuation of his specific Sokol. Some owners were willing to share what they had paid for their suits, as well as how much they were insured for. Others were not. Based on the information he could get, Clay attempted to renegotiate the deal for $35,000. Maxim would not budge.
Clay began the fundraising effort by chipping in $10,000 of his own money. Contributions from two friends raised the total to $25,000. By this time, Maxim was pressuring Clay to send the entire $50,000. Anderson was able to convince the Russian to accept $20,000 as a down payment.
"Boy, I was nervous that day! The deal was, I send Maxim the money, and the suit would go from Russia to Maryland to be held by a friend of his until I paid the remaining balance. So, I had the money transferred to his account. Then Maxim sent me a photo of some guy in Russia putting the suit in the trunk of his car! Now I'm thinking that the FBI is going to show up at my front door."
The Sokol made it to Maryland, and the FBI still hasn't knocked on Clay's door.
The Final Stretch
With the suit on US soil, Anderson continued his fundraising efforts. He was still shy of the goal when he ran out of people and organizations to ask. The good news is that the SAC Museum had their own fundraising channels that could help fill the bucket. The bad news was that they needed an additional $25,000 to create a proper space and displays for the suit. That's when they began a grassroots "Save the Suit" online campaign.
Donations continued to come in from businesses, groups, and individuals. The increments were often small. But each dollar helped and the total grew. Within a few months, Clay and the museum had collected enough money to pay off the suit and build a showcase for it. As before, handoff of the money to the Russian broker and delivery of the suit went off without a hitch.
In October of this year, Clay addressed a crowd of more than 900 people who had gathered for the unveiling of his suit at the SAC Museum. It had been a long, uncertain journey--one filled with hushed dealings, bureaucratic roadblocks, and financial uncertainty. Despite it all, Anderson's spacesuit was finally where he always felt it should be.
Although the future of Clay's Sokol is now secured, elements surrounding the situation remain hazy. I initially questioned the genesis of Sokol gloves and other Russian space hardware being sold on eBay. There is quite a bit of it to be found. But Clay's experience (and others) indicates that it's the real-deal. Furthermore, eBay seems like a highly conspicuous way to fence this stuff if it is stolen. I have to conclude that eBay just happens to be the preferred method for selling legitimate, surplus Russian space hardware. Go figure.
The burning question for me is why the suits created for US astronauts are not given to NASA. Is it an oversight? Or maybe keeping the suits in Russia is an intentional aspect of the deal. I spoke with NASA headquarters and asked if ownership of Sokols and other custom-made equipment for US astronauts is defined in of any agreements that they have with the Russians. I am still awaiting their response. I'll comment here if and when I receive a reply.
As for Clay, he is continuing his post-astronaut career as a speaker and author. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter. I mentioned his biography in a previous article. He is now preparing for the release of his first children's book, 'A is for Astronaut: Blasting Through the Alphabet', in March of 2018.
Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.