Buzz Aldrin's toothbrush: $18,400

Flight suit, helmet withdrawn from sale

March 30, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A New York auction of more than 300 pieces of space memorabilia took in more than $443,000 over the weekend, including $18,400 paid by a Scarsdale lawyer for a plastic toothbrush carried to the moon by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

But two of the most poignant items in the sale - a flight suit and helmet offered by the family of Columbia astronaut David Brown - were withdrawn after NASA told the family the equipment was still government property.

Officials at Swann Galleries said the two Brown items had been expected to sell for at least $48,000.

"It's not uncommon to have things like that happen in auctions," said Caroline Birenbaum, communications director for Swann Galleries in New York. "An auctioneer can only sell items that the person who consigns them has clear title to. Whenever there's any sort of question ... the item is withdrawn."

Brown, 46, and his six crewmates died aboard Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003, when the spacecraft broke apart during re-entry.

Three other items from Brown's estate were offered as planned. A NASA lithograph picture of the Columbia crew, signed by all seven astronauts, sold for $15,000, gallery officials said yesterday. A Columbia lapel pin, which carried a pre-sale estimate of $300 to $400, sold for $175. A cloth mission emblem failed to get a buyer.

Brown's family offered the items to benefit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization that sponsors student robotics competitions.

Of the 330 items Swann offered for sale on Saturday, 211 found buyers.

Swann identified the buyer of Buzz Aldrin's baby-blue toothbrush as Scarsdale lawyer Steven Belasco, whose $18,400 tab included a 15 percent commission.

"I didn't think you could own anything that had been on the moon," Belasco told New York's Newsday. "This is a real treat."

The 55-year-old collector also paid $21,850 for Aldrin's lunar module activation checklist, which he regards as the most historic of his purchases; and $29,900 for a navigational chart from the Apollo 11 moon landing, also signed by Aldrin.

The highest price paid (including commission), was $36,650 for an Apollo 11 emblem signed by all three members of the first lunar landing mission. It was expected to bring up to $18,000. The buyer wasn't identified.

The planned sale of David Brown's flight suit and helmet caught NASA's attention last week. At a meeting with family members on Friday, NASA asserted those items were issued for use on NASA's T-38 jet trainers, or for public appearances, and remained government property. "The family was asked to withdraw it. They weren't ordered or directed," said NASA spokesman Robert Mirelson. While it is proper for the family to retain the items, and to use them for educational purposes, they cannot be offered for sale, even for charitable purposes.

"I don't think there was any intent [by the Brown family] to do anything other than something very nice," he said. But "we have an obligation to the American taxpayer to use this equipment judiciously and properly."

The policy applies to all government-issued equipment, but not to "personal" or expendable items, such as Aldrin's toothbrush, that astronauts carry.

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