DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This week, Americans have been remembering Neil Armstrong for what made him famous - being the first man to walk on the moon. Our Planet Money team has a story about Neil Armstrong overcoming a less famous challenge - financial planning. Here's NPR's Chana Jaffe-Walt.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: The space race was on, Apollo 11 was set to launch in 1969, and Neil Armstrong had a problem. A space historian and collector told me about this, Robert Pearlman with CollectSpace.com. He says just think about it, you're an astronaut...
ROBERT PEARLMAN: You're about to embark on a mission that's more dangerous than anything any human has ever done before, because you're literally entering the final frontier of space. And you have a family that you're leaving behind on Earth and there's a real chance that you will not be returning.
JOFFE-WALT: Exactly the kind of situation a responsible person plans for - financially speaking, you know, takes out a life insurance policy or something.
PEARLMAN: And the cost for Neil Armstrong would of - at the minimum, would have been around $50,000.
JOFFE-WALT: A year, in the 1960s - risky job means high premiums.
Now, Neil Armstrong had something unusual going for him. He was famous for exactly those risks he was about to take. The whole Apollo 11 crew was: Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins. People really wanted their autographs.
PEARLMAN: These astronauts had been signing autographs since they day they were announced as astronauts. And they knew that, even though eBay didn't exist back then, that there was a market for such things. There was a demand.
JOFFE-WALT: Especially for what were called covers. These were envelopes that were signed by astronauts, sometimes they'd be postmarked. And so, about a month before Apollo 11 was set to launch, the three men entered quarantine.
PEARLMAN: And while they were in that secluded area together, they sat down and they signed hundreds, if not thousands, of these covers of these envelopes. All three of them signed each one.
JOFFE-WALT: They gave them to an astronaut friend. And on the day of the Apollo 11 launch, he got them to the post office - got them postmarked - and then distributed them to astronauts' three families.
PEARLMAN: So that they had their signatures on something that was postmarked on the day they launched.
JOFFE-WALT: Life insurance in the form of autographs.
PEARLMAN: If they did not return from the Moon, then these covers could be sold by their families to collectors and to the public. And that their families could sell them, to not just fund their day-to-day lives, but also fund their kids' college education and other life needs.
JOFFE-WALT: That is so clever.
PEARLMAN: Yeah, I mean they are astronauts.
JOFFE-WALT: The life insurance autographs were not needed. Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon; came home safely, and in the years following they signed probably tens of thousands more autographs for free.
But then in the 1990s, Robert Pearlman says the insurance autographs did start showing up in space memorabilia auctions.
Do you have any?
PEARLMAN: I don't, but I've held them. It's hard to just put into words, but to me they're beautiful.
JOFFE-WALT: Other people feel the same way. An Apollo 11 insurance autograph, right now, can cost as much as $30,000.
Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News
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