LOS ANGELES – It was one small step for man, and one small price that just wasn't enough.
A strip of fabric shorn from the American flag before it went to the moon with Apollo 11 astronauts pulled in a top bid of $60,000 at a Los Angeles auction on Sunday, but didn't meet the auction house's minimum reserve price of $95,000 and was not sold.
For now it will stay in the possession of owner Tom Moser, the retired NASA engineer who rescued it from the trash in 1969.
"When you're dealing with a unique item there's no way to anticipate either value or interest, so it's really a blind item," said auctioneer Michael Orenstein. "I would say we established a market."
Orenstein had earlier expressed hope that the strip from what he called "the most-viewed flag in American history" along with a photo bearing Neil Armstrong's autograph would fetch $100,000 to $150,000.
Orenstein said sometimes there would be minimal interest in an item then, "I put it in the next sale and it goes wild. That's the nature of the auction business."
Other items at the space-themed auction met or surpassed expectations including a Collier trophy -- the so-called Oscar of aviation -- that was awarded to the crew of 1962's Mercury 7 mission and sold Sunday for $12,500.
Orenstein said the auction as a whole was a big success with a 95 percent sell-through rate.
But the hopes were highest for the seven-inch strip of red and white fabric on consignment from Moser, the retired NASA engineer who was tasked with designing the moon-bound flag in the weeks before Apollo 11's 1969 launch.
NASA's original plans didn't involve planting a flag on the moon because of a United Nations treaty prohibiting nations from claiming celestial entities as their own, Moser said.
But after Congress slipped language into an appropriations bill authorizing the flag's placement as a non-territorial marker, Moser was told to design a flag that could survive the trip to the moon and be planted on its surface upon arrival.
With the spacecraft's tiny interior too cramped even for a rolled-up flag, Moser devised a way to fix an aluminum tube with a thermal liner for the banner on the outside of the vessel, he said.
NASA staff bought an American flag off the shelf of a nearby store and Moser had a hem sewn along its top, so a telescoping aluminum rod could be inserted to hold the banner out straight in the moon's low gravity environment. (On the moon, the rod didn't extend its full length; the consequent bunching is what makes the flag look like it's blowing in the wind.)
Meanwhile, a strip of fabric along the flag's left side was cut to remove a set of grommets, Moser said.
"It was put in the trash can and I just took it out and said, 'I'm going to keep that,"' he said.
Moser said he had Neil Armstrong sign a photo of the flag planted on the moon when the astronaut returned to Earth and he kept the picture and his rescued scrap of flag together in his NASA office until he retired in 1990.
But after hanging onto the photo and flag-swatch assemblage all these years, he finally decided to put them up to auction.
Some space scholars had been unimpressed with the artifact.
Since the remnant itself was never launched, its connection to the moon-bound banner has little significance, said Louis Parker, exhibits manager at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
"That doesn't give it any more importance than any other piece of fabric that was here on Earth," he said.
But Moser insisted that the piece does indeed have value, since it represents the beginning of an era of space exploration that now has an uncertain future as the space shuttle makes its final voyage.
"The flag is the icon of the whole accomplishment of the United States being first to the moon and of a great accomplishment for mankind," he said. "Being part of that icon, it has a special meaning."