Apollo Memorabilia: Command Module Handbag

Posted on Sat, July 20, 2019
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As the Museum celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, we also celebrate some of the unique pieces of memorabilia created to mark that human achievement. In addition to the pins, patches, buttons, medals, matchbooks, sweatshirts, and commemorative plates the Smithsonian holds in the national collection, this unique ladies handbag is one of my favorites.

This silver leather purse pays homage to the space vehicle that Apollo 11 command module pilot and later National Air and Space Museum director Michael Collins called "my happy home for eight days." In July 1969, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface below, Collins orbited the Moon in the combined command module (CM) and service module (SM), together called the command and service modules (CSM). The vehicle was a welcome sight for the two first Moonwalkers as they returned from the lunar surface, with Buzz Aldrin radioing their first visual contact, "Okay, I can see the shape of your vehicle now, Mike."

That distinctive silhouette inspired this creative piece. Inspired at least in part by the mod clothing movement that was in full swing by 1969, this streamlined fashion accessory reproduced the CSM’s form and color. The foot-long ladies handbag features gleaming silver handles and a silver clasp that completed the look. The actual Apollo CSMs featured a thermal coating of silver Mylar that helped to protect the astronauts from the Sun’s heat. For the command module, which had to carry the three returning astronauts and their cargo back through the atmosphere, the silver coating also protected against the heat created by atmospheric friction during re-entry. Photographs of the CSM taken from the lunar module show sunlight glinting off of the reflective surface.

The purse’s designer, Henry Fenster, who signed his work as Mr. Henry, used silver-colored leather with a "Morocco" grain to evoke the real spacecraft’s appearance. A Holocaust survivor from Poland, he and his wife emigrated to Montreal, Canada, in 1952. Along with his brother, he co-founded Mastercraft Leather Goods, a company that eventually employed as many as 200 people. In December 1969, Fenster personally presented the purses to the wives of the Apollo 11 astronauts as special mementos.

It is perhaps not too surprising that Collins’ "happy home" inspired Fenster’s creativity. More than any of the previous American space vehicles, the CSM looked like the popular image of a spaceship: a classic, pointed, single-engined rocketship. Unlike the sleek, streamlined, and aerodynamic space vehicles foretold in space science fiction, actual spaceships turned out to be somewhat awkward looking. The first American astronauts flew into space in blunt-ended capsules designed by Max Faget to maximize stability during re-entry. The lunar module (LM), the first ship to land on another world, looked like a squat box of angular planes perched atop spindly legs. (In fact, Apollo 9’s LM earned the affectionate call sign "Spider" because of its appearance.) When joined to the tubular service module and its single rocket engine, however, the conical command module became the pointed end of a classic rocketship profile.

Although the trips made by the Apollo Program’s CSMs remain the longest distances ever traveled by human beings, the CSM handbag’s journey into the Smithsonian’s collection was ultimately a very short one. Mrs. Patricia Collins chose not to keep hers, sending it to work with her husband. When Museum director Collins offered the bag to the Smithsonian’s National Collection in 1972, a staff member simply picked it up from his office and accessioned it.

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