Astronauts and Autopens

by Craig Stark

#10, 19 January 2004

Silver Threads and Golden Needles

One of the perqs of living in Florida (assuming, that is, that you live within 50 or 100 miles of Cape Kennedy) is that you have opportunities to watch launches. Lots of them. Even at 50 miles out these are spectacular, and a night launch? Doubly so. I saw one a year or so ago that was a jaw dropper.

It was shortly after sunset, and the night of all Florida nights. A pink aura glowed at the horizon, then bled into a cobalt, swimming-pool blue, finally deepening into an ultramarine sky overhead. Over the Atlantic Ocean, at a distance of perhaps 100 miles, a virtual city of towering, pillar-like clouds floated silently, their underbellies still lit by a sun now far beyond the horizon. Stars, to say the least, massed overhead.

I didn't hear anything at first. You have to watch. Expect. Without warning a dark bullet, pluming and then trailing a liquid, silver thread, appeared over a canopy of laurel oaks in my back yard and climbed. And climbed. When it rose well into the sky and met the sun on the other side of the planet, it burst into gold. In a matter of moments it was as tiny as a needle - and gone. Men were in it.

It's not difficult for me to understand why NASA stuff is collectible. Apart from present day shuttle launches, which are still something to marvel at, there's a rich, adventure-packed history of exploration here that dates back half a century. This rivets my attention particularly because a good amount of NASA stuff is floating around in this area. Alan Shepard is a big deal. Grissom, Glenn. Big deals. And of course Neil Armstrong. These aren't the garden variety, Drescher-like celebrities that go for $20 on eBay. Find a signed anything by any one of them, and you've really got something.

Or have you?

For reasons which make you want to strangle somebody at NASA, a decision was made from day one at this most venerable organization to issue autopens to all astronauts. It works like this: Joe A. Naut signs his name, the signature is sent to Acme Autopen Inc., and a template (sometimes called a matrix) is produced which, when inserted in the autopen machine, exactly reproduces the original signature. It sounds like a horror story, and it can be for collectors. As you might suspect, actual astronaut signatures are sometimes very hard to come by and are valued accordingly. Autopen signatures are comparatively plentiful.

How do you know - how can you determine which is real and which isn't? Fortunately, there's much you can do short of taking it to an expert. A close inspection can often yield important clues. Though autopens accommodate pens and pencils, most astronauts (and other celebrities) use the infamous Sharpie - those seemingly innocent, mass-produced markers available at stores everywhere. Signatures produced with an autopen Sharpie may display the following characteristics:

  1. An abrupt beginning or end of a stroke, as opposed to a gradual increase or decrease in pressure as the pen is brought to or lifted from the surface.

  2. A widening at the beginning or (less often) end of a stroke, sometimes taking the form of a dot. Real signatures typically narrow and grow lighter at these same locations.

  3. A uniformly light or even appearance. Think in terms of how you sign your name. There are numerous and sometimes substantial variations in pressure which may produce widening, narrowing, and indentations. Sometimes indentations can be observed by holding the page at an acute angle under a light.

  4. A shaky line. Look closely for this, preferably with a magnifying glass. Some autopen machines vibrate ever so slightly and leave a path of betrayal.

  5. Finally, sometimes things just don't look right. Or natural. For whatever reason. Obviously you can't rule out the authenticity of a signature on something this vague, but it can help you to focus your suspicions for further investigation.

A few more thoughts on autopens. The most reliable indication that you have an autopen signature is that it matches another example, either in whole or part. Collections of known autopen samples appear on numerous websites.

A useful publication for researching samples is Pen & Quill, the official publication of the Universal Autograph Collector's Club. A list of reasonably priced back issues appears here.

Autograph Collector is another helpful publication.

Autograph Times no longer publishes, but back issues, if you can get them, contain valuable references.

A FINAL NOTE: It's possible to move the surface being written on during the signing process and produce some variations in a signature with an autopen, but at some point or points things will still match up with samples. If anything matches up at all - exactly - you've got an autopen signature. Note also that some celebrities own several templates and may use them interchangeably.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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