2:21am

Thu August 30, 2012
Planet Money

What The Apollo Astronauts Did For Life Insurance

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 3:48 pm

This week, Americans have been remembering Neil Armstrong. But before he walked on the moon, he had to solve a much more prosaic problem.

"You're about to embark on a mission that's more dangerous than anything any human has ever done before," Robert Pearlman, a space historian and collector with collectspace.com, told me. "And you have a family that you're leaving behind on Earth, and there's a real chance you will not be returning."

Exactly the kind of situation a responsible person plans for by taking out a life insurance policy. Not surprisingly, a life insurance policy for somebody about to get on a rocket to the moon cost a fortune.

But Neil Armstrong had something going for him. He was famous, as was the whole Apollo 11 crew. People really wanted their autographs.

"These astronauts had been signing autographs since the day they were announced as astronauts, and they knew even though eBay didn't exist back then, that there was a market for such things," Pearlman said. "There was demand."

Especially for what were called covers -– envelopes signed by astronauts and postmarked on important dates.

About a month before Apollo 11 was set to launch, the three astronauts entered quarantine. And, during free moments in the following weeks, each of the astronauts signed hundreds of covers.

They gave them to a friend. And on important days — the day of the launch, the day the astronauts landed on the moon — their friend got them to the post office and got them postmarked, and then distributed them to the astronauts' families.

It was life insurance in the form of autographs.

"If they did not return from the moon, 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," Pearlman said.

The life insurance autographs were not needed. Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon and came home safely. They signed probably tens of thousands more autographs for free.

But then, in the 1990s, Robert Pearlman says, the insurance autographs started showing up in space memorabilia auctions. An Apollo 11 insurance autograph can cost as much as $30,000.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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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GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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