Apollo 13: memorabilia from a 'successful failure'

The best memorabilia has a story attached, and few stories are more remarkable than the Apollo 13 mission.

Perhaps thanks to its ominous mission number, and the 1995 film based on the events starring Tom Hanks, it is a story that is familiar to many. Even at the time - as with many key historical events that occurred during the late-'60s onwards - much of the world watched the unfolding drama on television.

Apollo 13 movie poster
Hollywood's 1995 retelling of Apollo 13

Apollo 13 was the third manned mission by NASA to land men on the Moon. It had already been hit by bad luck when command module pilot Ken Mattingly had to be withdrawn from the mission after catching German measles.

He was replaced by John L "Jack" Swigert, who joined commander James A Lovell and lunar module pilot Fred W Haise, both of whom had been in the back-up crew for 1969's Apollo 11 mission.

Apollo 13 famously launched on the thirteenth hour and thirteenth minute of April 11, 1970.

From the earliest manned space expeditions, the brave astronauts onboard had always been haunted by the possibility of equipment failure, and the consequences such an event would have in the vacuum of space.

Two days after Apollo 13's launch, this nightmare came true. A fault in the electrical system of one of the Service Module's oxygen tanks produced an explosion which caused a loss of electrical power and failure of both oxygen tanks.

Lovell and Haise's mission notes ($27,450)
Lovell and Haise's mission notes

For a time, the Command Module remained functional on its own batteries and oxygen tank; but these were only designed to support the vehicle during its last hours of flight.

Instead, the crew were forced to shut down the Command Module and use the Lunar Module as a deep space "lifeboat". Here, considerable ingenuity under extreme pressure was required from the crew, flight controllers and support personnel to work towards a safe return.

Using the lunar module, really only designed for the Moon's surface, as a substitute space craft was an ingenious move, but one fraught with hardships, including limited power, loss of cabin heat, and a shortage of portable water.

Nevertheless, the gamble was made possible thanks to the Lunar Module's descent engine. The engine could produce approximately 1,000 to 9,800 pounds of thrust and was capable of multiple start-stop thrusts.

The descent engine enabled the Apollo 13 crew to change their flight plan and return safely to Earth. A wood, plastic and metal model of the engine sold at Bonhams' July space sale for $5,185.

Apollo 13's lunar module spacecraft identification plate ($47,800)
Apollo 13's lunar module spacecraft identification plate, signed ($47,800)

Forty years on, the 'successful failure' Apollo 13 is still regarded as an exceptional event in human history, and its ongoing remembrance can be seen in today's successful sales of memorabilia from the mission.

As with all the best memorabilia, collectors want to get as close to the events as possible.

Earlier this year, Lovell and Haise's notes from the mission sold for an incredible $27,450. The notes contained a comprehensive checklist sheet providing critical steps for rapid activation of  the Lunar Module. Similarly, a flown systems data checklist consigned by Lovell sold at Heritage's April 2009 space auction for $28,680.

Bidders were also attracted to a Bible carried aboard Apollo 13. Printed in the 1960s and accompanied by a typed signed letter by James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise, it left the auction block valued at $14,640.

A higher price was paid for a pair of sunglasses and a case, worn by Fred Haise during the flight. "They were helpful in reducing the glare of sunlight coming through the spacecraft windows. They would have greatly assisted my ability to identify landmarks on the Moon," he wrote in the lot's verifying letter.

Meanwhile, a Beta cloth space suit strap on pocket designed to strap around the leg of a space-suited astronaut sold for $8,540 - a remarkable example of how provenance can boost memorabilia values.

Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that a Stars and Stripes flag flown around the Moon aboard Apollo 13 brought $6,100 - the symbolism of the US flag combined with the tale of the astronaut's bravery proved irresistable to bidders.

Fred Haise's NASA emblem and name tag, sewn onto the Personal Life Support System secured to the back of his space suit, sold for even more, bringing $10,370.

The item's provenance is best described by Haise himself: "Since the oxygen tank explosion forced cancellation of the lunar landing... I cut this emblem and name tag from my PLSS cover as a reminder of what might have been."

However, the most valuable piece of Apollo 13 memorabilia to-date is from the Apollo 13 module itself: the flown lunar module spacecraft identification plate. 

The metal plate, of 5.25" x 1.75" mounted to a 10" x 11" wooden display plaque, reads: "APOLLO XIII LUNAR MODULE - 7 "FAREWELL AQUARIUS, AND WE THANK YOU" Capt. J. Lovell - F. Haise - J. Swigert, Jr."

Fred Haise's space suit patch
"A reminder of what could have been"

Because it had no heat shield and was not designed to withstand the extreme heat generated during the plunge through Earth's atmosphere, Aquarius - the lunar module "lifeboat" that literally saved the astronauts' lives - had to be jettisoned into space.

"Farewell, Aquarius, and we thank you," commented Mission Control's Joe Kerwin at the time.

The jettisoning of Aquarius was an emotional time for the crew - "She sure was a good ship," commented Lovell - and the plaque remains the final reminder of its existence. It sold at Heritage for $47,800.

Next year, the second Bonham's space sale will be timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission (its first sale marked the anniversary of Apollo 11) - an event which will likely see Apollo 13 memorabilia sales overtake the $47,000 Aquarius plaque.

For the time being, if you are eager to get your hands on space exploration memorabilia, at Paul Fraser Collectibles we currently have



Images: Bonhams and Heritage

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