The Story Behind the Only Sculpture on the Moon Is a Doozy

In 1971, an astronaut placed a 3 1/2-inch aluminum sculpture on the moon, igniting an art world scandal transcending our earthly bearings. The long, bizarre tale of "one of the smallest yet most extraordinary achievements of the Space Age" is recounted by Corey Powell and Laurie Gwen Shapiro over at Slate. If there's anything to be learned, it's that egos inflate in space.

The sculpture, called Fallen Astronaut, was created by artist Paul van Hoeydonck, and it made its way onboard Apollo 15 through maneuverings by a PR-savvy gallery owner and a Florida golf pro with "a full-time hobby of astronaut schmoozing." What's really interesting is what happened afterward.

For David Scott, the Apollo 15 astronaut who physically placed the sculpture on the moon, Fallen Astronaut was a memorial to those who had lost their lives to the space program. But for Hoeydonck, let's not forget he's was the only artist in the whole wide universe whose work has been exhibited on the moon! Hoeydonck gets peeved that initial press coverage doesn't mention his name, and his gallery begins creating replicas for collectors at $750. The pursuit of money and publicity then sours Scott on the whole project and things go south from there. The long back and forth between artist and astronaut is worth reading.

The Story Behind the Only Sculpture on the Moon Is a Doozy

Fallen Astronaut on the surface of the moon.

Perhaps what's most compelling of all is the glimpse inside the space souvenir industry. The dispute about selling replicas of Fallen Astronaut comes to a head because of another souvenir scandal, known as "the postage stamp incident":

During Apollo 15 the three astronauts had brought 641 postal covers (stamped envelopes) to the moon, to be returned with a lunar postmark. Some were authorized by NASA as souvenirs, but 100 of them were earmarked for a German collector named Hermann Sieger. The plan was that he would buy them for $21,000, split three ways to create trust funds for the astronauts' children, and hold off on reselling them until after the astronauts were out of public life.

This, in turn, came at the heels of yet another controversy, wherein Apollo 14 astronauts had carried silver medals from the Franklin Mint to the moon. A trip through space imbued these objects with value—even meaning—far beyond their substance.

With these souvenirs comes tangible proof, in cold hard cash, of humankind's fascination with the heavens. Haven't you looked at a space shuttle or a piece of moon rock in a museum and wondered about its journey? If you were the only artist whose work has been on the moon, wouldn't you want credit, too? [Slate via @nicolatwilley]

Photo of the Fallen Astronaut and astronaut David Scott on the moon courtesy of NASA.