NASA Challenges Sale Of Apollo 13 Artifact

A checklist used during the failed 1970 Apollo 13 moon mission is creating a problem for NASA. Commander James Lovell's checklist, which was instrumental in getting the crew back to Earth successfully after a technical failure in space, was recently sold at auction for almost $400,000. Now, NASA says that Lovell didn't have the right to sell the checklist. Audie Cornish speaks with Robert Pearlman, editor of the website CollectSpace.com, about the dustup.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. NASA, we have a problem. Once again, it relates to Apollo 13, the famous and near disastrous moon mission in 1970, and to the original checklist that the commander, James Lovell, used to guide his damaged spacecraft home, as highlighted in the movie, "Apollo 13."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "APOLLO 13")

TOM HANKS: (as James Lovell) Freddo, how long does it take to power up the LEM?

BILL PAXTON: (as Fred Haise) Three hours, by the checklist.

HANKS: (as James Lovell) We don't have that much time.

CORNISH: Lovell held onto that checklist for decades, a ring-bound notebook with his handwritten calculations in the margins. That is until last fall when it was sold at a Dallas auction house for more than $380,000. Now, NASA is challenging the sale of the notebook, as well as other memorabilia.

Joining us to talk more about this is Robert Pearlman. He edits the website, CollectSpace.com. Hello there, Robert.

ROBERT PEARLMAN: Hi. How are you?

CORNISH: Good. So start by reminding us exactly what happened with Apollo 13 and the role that this checklist played in saving it.

PEARLMAN: Well, Apollo 13 was meant to be the third manned landing on the moon, but as people remember from the movie with Tom Hanks, about midway through the flight, there was a explosion in part of their spacecraft and it became a mission not to land them on the moon, but to bring home the astronauts safely. And part of that was turning a lunar module, the lunar lander that would have taken Jim Lovell and Fred Haise to the surface of the moon and convert it into a lifeboat so that they could make it back to earth.

CORNISH: And I gather that the notebook had his notes about navigation and about transferring some of the information from the main spacecraft to this little lifeboat and Lovell has had it for decades, so why is he selling it now and what happened when he finally got it to market?

PEARLMAN: Jim Lovell had donated a lot of his memorabilia that he'd kept from the mission to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago in 2005. More recently, he was cleaning out a bookshelf at his home and he found this checklist. And he had already asked his children what they wanted to keep from his collection and he'd already given away all of this other material. And so he decided that someone out there might want to own this checklist and so he put it up for auction.

CORNISH: So what's the difference now? Because space memorabilia has always been popular. Why is NASA challenging this or any of the other artifacts that have made it to auction?

PEARLMAN: It's not entirely clear. Checklist sales have gone on for the past two decades or more and some of them have reached six figures, so it's not like, even though this one set a record for how much was spent, it wasn't outlandishly above other examples.

So, right now, that's part of the reason why the astronauts felt this was a misunderstanding. And they asked for a meeting and received one this morning with NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.

CORNISH: And what's happened, then, with the checklist and between NASA and Mr. Lovell?

PEARLMAN: Well, no agreement has been reached yet. This morning's meeting was basically to set an agreement that they have to agree upon new policies. Part of the problem was, 40 years ago, the policies that were in place that allowed the astronauts to keep mission-used equipment like checklists wasn't written down. And no one was really thinking about selling anything back then, it was just a souvenir of their flights.

Now, 40 years later, as these astronauts are in their 80s and they're retired and divesting of their collections, NASA is sort of struggling with the idea that they can sell for close to half a million dollars an item that the taxpayers paid for.

CORNISH: So was the issue that the astronauts still have the mementos or that they're trying to profit from them?

PEARLMAN: It's more about the astronauts trying to, not just profit, but assign them to other people. So what NASA is saying is that they'd like to have a say in where these artifacts go, in part to protect historic artifacts to be on display for the American public.

What people who've purchased these checklists have said is that they already served that role. They loan them and exhibit them at museums and they research and document them greater than some museums are even possible of doing. And so there needs to be a discussion now between collectors, museums astronauts and NASA about what best serves these remaining artifacts.

CORNISH: Robert Pearlman. He's the editor of the website, CollectSpace.com. Robert, thank you so much.

PEARLMAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.