A charitable mission

Astronaut's belongings put up for auction

March 24, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The family of astronaut David Brown, one of seven crew members who perished on the space shuttle Columbia last year, is auctioning off one of his helmets, a flight suit and three other items to raise money for one of Brown's favorite causes.

It's not the first time the survivors of astronauts killed in accidents have sold off such items to raise money. But Brown's are believed to be the first to be offered by the families of those killed when Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.

Brown's helmet and flight suit "carry quite an emotional punch," said Nicholas D. Lowry, president of Swann Galleries, the New York auction house that has organized the sale, to be held Saturday. "It's very bittersweet."

The five articles from Brown's estate are among 330 items of American and Soviet space memorabilia being offered for sale. Many were consigned by former astronauts.

None of the Brown material was on board Columbia when it was lost. The blue NASA flight suit was issued to him for flights aboard the space agency's T-38 jet trainers, and for public appearances. Swann is estimating a sale price of at least $30,000.

"There's no real diplomatic way to say this," Lowry said, "but the results from other auctions seem to clearly show there's a premium paid for items belonging to American patriots who have perished in the service of their country."

The T-38 flight helmet and duffle bag with Brown's name are being sold together, with an expected price of at least $18,000. Also on the block will be a NASA lithograph of the Columbia crew, signed by all seven members (estimated at $12,000), a lapel pin from the fatal mission ($300) and a cloth emblem ($400).

All five pieces come with letters, signed by the astronaut's brother Douglas Brown, attesting they come from Brown's estate.

Proceeds from the sale of the Brown items will benefit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit founded by inventor Dean Kamen that encourages high school students to pursue careers in science and technology.

FIRST sponsors robotics competitions across the country which now attract more than 24,000 students each year.

In a letter that accompanies the items, Brown's brother explains that "our family collectively decided to continue David's desire to support charities he expressed admiration for while he was an astronaut. Inspiring young minds to pursue careers in science and medicine was one of his personal goals while an astronaut."

Brown was 46 and single when he died. He was an aviator and flight surgeon returning from his first trip into space as a Columbia mission specialist.

Robert Z. Pearlman, editor of Collectspace.com, an online site for space memorabilia collectors, said the families of astronauts killed in accidents have sold items before.

"A watch that once belonged to Edward White [killed in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire in 1967] was once sold at auction. [It] was said to have been in his possession at the time of the fire," Pearlman said.

Lowry said the families of the other two Apollo 1 astronauts - Gus Grissom and Roger Chafee - have also sold items to convert memorabilia into cash.

Among Saturday's offerings at the Swann auction is an Apollo 1 crew patch consigned by astronaut Gordon Cooper. It was given to Cooper by Grissom, and comes with a letter in which Cooper describes his shock at the accident. "Gus was a very close friend," Cooper said.

Pearlman could not recall any items sold by survivors of the Challenger astronauts, but said autographs of the lost Challenger crew have been sold by others.

Living astronauts have also donated items to auctions benefiting various charities and scholarship programs, the families of Columbia astronauts and the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The appeal of items that once belonged to astronauts is a very personal one, Pearlman said.

"You collect items that bring some type of emotions out," he said. "Space memorabilia in general is a hobby of those who would like to fly in space, or who really look up to astronauts as their heroes. And when a hero is lost, there are stronger connections sometimes."

Among other offerings in this year's Swann auction that have caught collectors' attention is an 18-inch strap that fastened Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell's portable life support system (PLSS) to the back of his space suit.

Mitchell used the strap while walking on the moon in 1971, and it's soiled by moon dust. Swann estimates a selling price of $50,000.

"The straps are rare because the PLSS backpacks were tossed out the door" before the astronauts blasted off the lunar surface, Pearlman said. "Only 12 people walked on the moon, so the amount of material you can get from a person who walked on the moon is very limited."

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