The space memorabilia collections of Noah H Bradley III
The Virginian builder whose collectibles included the most valuable Neil Armstrong signature ever written
Noah Bradley is a resident of the state of Virginia, where he was born in Richmond and now lives in Charlottesville. His day job is the business he founded: Blue Mountain Builders, which builds individually handcrafted homes.
In the building trade he has a somewhat unusual speciality: houses from before the Civil War era which are in danger of being damaged or demolished are carefully dismantled by Bradley and reconstructed elsewhere for people who can appreciate them.
His hobby is even more remarkable, however, as a passionate collector of space memorabilia. Bradley has quietly been assembling a collection for a number of years, with dreams of collecting an item from every mission astronauts have flown to the moon.
Like many of the most passionate space collectors Bradley, now in his early fifties, was at an impressionable age when the Apollo missions were taking place. One of his favourite quotes, from Apollo 11's Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, sums up the sense of awe associated with space travel felt by many of that generation:
"To actually be 100,000 miles out, to look out four windows and find nothing but black infinity, to finally locate the blue-and-white golf ball in the fifth window, to know how fortunate we are to be able to return to it...
"There is but one Earth, tiny and fragile, and one must get 100,000 miles away to appreciate fully one's good fortune in living on it."
From early on, he gained items flown on Apollo 11, 14 and 17: a medallion, badge and a flag - all of which any space collector would be proud to own.
Bradley's badge collection has gone from strength to strength, and he is credited amongst fellow collectors as showing that it was one Allen A Stevens who was the artist behind the final designs for the Apollo 1, Apollo 7, Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 mission patches, and appears to have played a role in designing others, even Apollo 11's.
This discovery was made when Bradley purchased a collection of sketches, paintings and documents belonging to the artist, which include some key pieces of artwork ahead of the missions. (The conclusions drawn were written up by Ed Hengeveld)
These included both early designs of the ill-fated mission later known as Apollo 1 and the early patches for Apollo 7, which showed a phoenix (which in myth rises from flames, in reference to the tragic fire in the earlier mission) rising. The design was later changed as it was felt to be too close to the bone.
The badge for Apollo 9 (which involved crucial tests for the Lunar Module) had to be altered, as the mission was originally intended to follow Apollo 7 and be named Apollo 8, but work on the Lunar Module became so far behind schedule as to make this impossible.
Bradley's most famous item, however, was a cheque signed by the first moonwalker Neil Armstrong - or rather The Cheque, written by Armstrong to Harold Collins, NASA Chief of Mission Support, for $10.50 he owed, shortly before Apollo 11 took off.
The cheque was in recognition of the fact that Armstrong could not be sure he would return, and had no intention of leaving debts. Indeed the actual moonlanding was considered so dangerous that President Nixon had a speech prepared in case Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not return, whilst Michael Collins fretted about whether he really return to Earth alone if the pair were left stranded.
Despite this, Armstrong told Harold Collins when he wrote the cheque, "Here's a check for the loan, but don't cash it, because I WILL be coming back." and was proved right.
Bradley gained the cheque in 2002, (in an auction, offered by Collins' son George) but by 2009 had decided it was time to relinquish it. "As collectors, we are always temporary custodians of any item, and sometimes it's time to let it go somewhere else.'' he explained.
RR Auction, who handled the auction, was delighted to be a part of the sale. "This is probably the coolest Apollo 11 autograph in private hands," Bobby Livingston commented at the time, and repeated in his interview with us that it was a highlight of his career.
The piece sold for $27,350 - breaking the record for an Armstrong autograph at auction (previously set at $19,000) to a Jack Staub of California.
In general the increase in value of many space collectibles has been rapid, as Bradley himself notes on a website he first set up in 2006 for someone just starting their collection and willing to spend up to $1,000. The site was received enthusiastically by fellow collectors
In 2008 he added a note to acknowledge the increases, including Liberty Bell lucites selling for $500 (up from $200), and Apollo 15 pencil graphite displays (showing a fragment of graphite taken to the moon's surface) up from $20 to a stunning $750.
As Bradley puts it, "If you put together a collection like this one at the time of this posting, congratulations... you not only have a great set... but you made a wise investment.
"If you procrastinated, keep in mind that there are still plenty of great items out there that offer tremendous value, so get started today!"
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Images: Noah Bradley (Apollo badges) and RR Auction (Neil Armstrong cheque)