The Apollo astronauts took tremendous risks and saw remarkable things when they went to the moon, but since they were mostly paid as military pilots, the experience made few of them wealthy. That is part of the reason why, over the years, some of them sold off the souvenirs they collected on their adventures.
One item now coming up for auction is billed as the first ever "lunar Bible" -- a little square sheet of microfilm, just an inch and a half on a side, carried to the lunar surface by astronaut Edgar Mitchell on Apollo 14 in February 1971.
The auction begins online Sept. 15, and the minimum bid is $5,000. There are 831 other items being offered by RR Auction of Amherst, N.H., but Bobby Livingston, who's running it, says he's especially fond of the tiny Bible.
"There are a lot of people all over the world who just love the space program," said Livingston. "Baby boomers like me, and many others."
"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth...." It's all there, 1,245 pages of the King James Bible in microscopic type, and Livingston says it has been flown to the moon more often than any person.
As the story goes, 512 copies of the microfilm were made by a group called the Apollo Prayer League, led by a Texas minister named John Stout. They were approved to be carried in the Lunar Module for Apollo 12, the second landing mission, but by mistake they were packed into an astronaut's personal belongings that remained in the Command Module, which only orbited the moon.
Stout tried again. He arranged for them to fly on Apollo 13, this time in the landing ship, but as you'll recall, Apollo 13 suffered an explosion, swung around the moon, and made it home only through ingenuity and luck.
The third time is always the charm. Mitchell carried 100 copies of the microfilm in his personal kit on Apollo 14. In 2000, needing money, he sold what he still had at auction. He signed a letter at the time certifying that, to his knowledge, only 12 copies of the lunar Bible were still intact.
"Many of these men were very spiritual," said Livingston. "Buzz Aldrin celebrated communion in the Lunar Module. Mitchell said he had an epiphany." He quoted one astronaut as saying, "I know infinity exists." How? "Because I saw it, dammit!"
Everything that is not infinity, and was carried on the moon missions, was supposed to be government property; the Justice Department sued Mitchell in June for trying to auction off a camera he still had.
Livingston says the astronauts were entitled to better. "There was a time-honored tradition that the astronauts could salvage anything from their flights."
By the 1980s, many of them had sold their treasures, some making extra money by signing autographs and telling space stories at conventions. One exception was Neil Armstrong, who famously stopped signing his name when he found other people were profiting by selling the scraps of paper.
A glove, tailored to fit Armstrong's left hand and used in training for moonwalks, is among the items at this month's auction. So is a page from the Apollo 11 flight plan, signed by Aldrin. There's a computer display from an Apollo simulator, probably used in training by Armstrong as well. And there's a typed letter, signed by Armstrong and Aldrin, to Mrs. A. O. Teller of Honolulu in June 1969, thanking her for suggesting what to say when he stepped onto the lunar surface.
"We do not know at this time what our inclination will be should we be successful in our landing attempt," says the letter. "I certainly hope you will be pleased with whatever message we do have and the impressions that people on earth receive from our efforts."
Several of the Apollo astronauts had a hard time back on Earth, which is why collectors and auctioneers have accumulated many of their belongings. The bidding for this month's auction ends on Sept. 22, and Livingston defends the astronauts whose mementoes are part of it.
"It's memorable stuff," he said, "and they want it in the hands of people who know what it is."