In August 1971, astronauts on the Apollo 15 mission placed a small aluminum sculpture and a plaque on the moon that commemorated the deaths of fourteen U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. The event was largely unknown until the astronauts returned to Earth. The story that followed the ceremonial event, however, had a life all its own.
Before the Apollo 15 mission, astronaut Dave Scott met a Belgian artist named Paul van Hoeydonck at a dinner party. Scott asked van Hoeydonck if he would make a statue to commemorate those cosmonauts and astronauts that had died furthering space exploration. Though the recollections by the two men over the details of the agreement became fuzzy in later years, van Hoeydonck at the time agreed to produce the statue.
There were certain parameters that the statue had to adhere to, however. It had to be small, gender non-specific, and couldn’t be from any particular ethnic group. It also had to be light and durable to withstand the extreme environment of the moon. According to Scott, it was also supposedly agreed that van Hoeydonck’s name as the sculptor would remain anonymous to adhere to NASA’s policies on commercial exploitation of the space program. Van Hoeydonck’s version of the agreement was a bit different. He said there hadn’t been an agreement he would remain anonymous.
Van Hoeydonck completed the statue, and Scott smuggled it in his spacesuit aboard Apollo 15 in 1971 along with a small plaque. There was no formal ceremony when Scott got to the moon. He simply placed the figurine and the plaque by the Moon Rover when he informed mission control he was cleaning up in that spot. The plaque had the names of fourteen astronauts and cosmonauts that had died, but two cosmonaut names were missing because they hadn’t been known to have died at the time due to the secrecy of the Russian space program. The next time an astronaut lost their life wasn’t until the 1986 Challenger disaster.
The news of the new memorial on the moon was largely unknown until Walter Cronkite revealed it was there during the launch of the Apollo 16 mission in April 1972. He stated that the first piece of art was on the Moon; the “Fallen Astronaut” and the plaque with the names of the astronauts and cosmonauts. A replica was given to the Smithsonian Institution the day after Cronkite announced the existence of the memorial art piece.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for the “Fallen Astronaut” statue. Van Hoeydonck had still not been credited as the artist of the first art on the moon. In May 1972, Scott learned that van Hoeydonck was going to sell replicas of the statue. Scott contended this was not part of the agreement and was against NASA policy. Despite his call for van Hoeydonck not to sell the replicas, a full-page ad appeared in July 1972 in an issue of Art in America magazine that promoted the sale of 950 statues. They were supposedly to be sold by the Waddell Gallery in New York at a price of $750 apiece for a signed statue. The sale never happened because of an unrelated incident between the astronauts from Apollo 15 and NASA. It was called “the postage stamp incident”.
The astronauts took 641 stamped envelopes to the moon that were returned with a lunar postmark. NASA authorized most of them as souvenirs, but 100 stamped envelopes were for a German collector who was going to buy them from the astronauts for $21,000. The money was then going to be used for trust funds for the astronauts’ children. The collector was supposed to sell them only when the astronauts were no longer involved with NASA, but he began to sell the stamped envelopes as soon as he got them. This resulted in a closed Senate hearing and a NASA investigation into the possibility the astronauts were profiting from space travel.
Though the astronauts were later exonerated from any wrongdoing other than a public reprimand, NASA investigators interviewed van Hoeydonck about his role with the “Fallen Astronaut” statue since it was linked with the “postage stamp incident”. They asked the artist who was reproducing it, and who may have been profiting from it. Legal pressure caused van Hoeydonck and the Waddell Gallery to stop the sale of the replicas and ultimately only 50 reproductions were made of the statue. Van Hoeydonck said that none of these have ever been sold or that he has received any money for his creation.