Autograph December 2009


Is a picture worth a thousand words? As an autograph collector with a passion for space, there’s nothing I like better than words inscribed on a unique image, giving me a connection to the moment in time and the individuals who lived that moment. But when do inscriptions complete an image and when do they transform that image into another art form?

"Earth rises over lunar horizon. We are ready for 30 second burn!" Cantwell occasionally requested that astronauts inscribe the images with actual phrases from the flight recorder.

“Earth rises over lunar horizon. We are ready for 30 second burn!” Cantwell occasionally requested that astronauts inscribe the images with actual phrases from the flight recorder.

These are just a few of the questions that came to mind as I made my way through the display of incredible large-format (16×20) signed and inscribed photos from the Leslie Cantwell collection. Cantwell, a U.K. business man and collector of unique historic images from the Apollo space program, possesses the world’s largest and most extensive collection of signed and inscribed images from Apollo. His amazing collection, on display through 2010 at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kan., is the result of a passionate pursuit and has been more than a decade in the making.

“The collection came about as I had always loved the imagery of the American space program,” Cantwell explained. He acquired his first autographed photo in 1981 when he met the late moonwalker Jim Irwin in Germany and Irwin inscribed a photo for him. Cantwell put that photo aside, only to rediscover it many years later. At that point of rediscovery, his love for space images and his love of poetry combined to create a new collecting passion.

“I am an avid reader of renaissance literature and poetry, especially Dante and passages from Paradiso, part three of the Divine Comedy,” Cantwell told me. “Dante’s work is an allegorical journey through the heavens to reach paradise. Even though it was written 600 years ago, many of the verses reminded me of space travel—almost as if he were dreaming about what it would be like to be up there. One day, I was at home reading and thought, Wow! That would be cool to get an astronaut who has been up there to write that verse on a photo—and thus, bridge the gap between 600 years.”


Over the next 10 years, Cantwell expended considerable time and financial resources to assemble hundreds of unique and large format images from the space missions. He painstakingly selected appropriate quotes from literature or from the astronauts themselves that brought the emotional arc of each photo to life. Then he visited with each astronaut at shows or in private meetings in London and the U.S. to have them sign and inscribe each photo…for a price, of course.

“It will come as no surprise that this collection has evolved at immense financial cost,” said Cantwell. “I have to say that most astronauts were brilliant and cooperative. Jack Lousma, Alan Bean and Walter Cunningham were unbelievably cooperative, and were very enthusiastic about my vision for the collection. Alan Bean thought the words I selected were beautiful. Others were less enthusiastic. But money can move men to do wonderful things!”


Cantwell’s goal was a personal quest and one that has transformed his collection from a mere assemblage of images and autographs into an amalgam of art, literature and a living history lesson. His collection has been exhibited in art galleries and museums in London and the U.S. and a 100 image selection is currently on display at the Cosmophere. It was hard to tear my eyes away from the photos, but it was also fun to watch people’s faces, initially pulled in by the breathtaking photos, then moving closer to read the inscriptions and finally stopping, experiencing both at once—the image and the idea as a single message.

“We chose to display Leslie’s collection due to the extremely unique nature and stunning visual presentation of the photographs and handwritten inscriptions,” said Christopher Orwoll, President and CEO of the Cosmosphere. “The visitors here have been astonished at the collection, and staff has been amazed at the immense variety of the inscriptions.”

CommandModuleMore importantly, added Orwoll, Leslie’s collection isn’t just an assemblage of images, but a chance to underscore the emotional impact of these historic moments in manned space flight as teachable moments. “These are lengthy, handwritten inscriptions by the astronauts themselves,“ Orwoll points out, “which highlight aspects of the photos and enhance the presentation. Poetry or quotes from Kipling and Dante which, even though written before the era of air or space travel, provide an insight into the emotions of the photos and are key to why this exhibit is so much fun and such a hit with our visitors.”

“A couple of years ago, another part of my collection was shown at an art gallery in London,” added Cantwell, who still seems surprised by the emotional reactions his collection inspires. “I was unsure as to what the response might be, but on the first night, I was amazed to find so many people, plus TV and radio. That exhibition was a huge success with an audience that seemed fascinated by the images and inscriptions.”

CleansuitSometimes an item in Cantwell’s collection starts with a quote from his reading, but the hard work begins with finding the right photo for the inscription. “Everyone is aware of the NASA image archives, but I wanted to source rarely seen images.” Cantwell remains secretive about his source for photos, and his image selections often surprise even the astronauts themselves.

His collection and passion are about more than just collecting autographs. “While I possess a vast collection of signed NASA photos, my work was never just about autograph collecting. It was about bringing the images to life—with the personal touch of a moonwalker who fulfilled the dream of humanity over millennia by writing in his own hand a segment of mission transcripts, poetry, or some other commentary.”

Given the large quantity of signed images in his collection, I asked Cantwell if he had a favorite. “I have many,” he replied diplomatically. “So that is rather impossible to answer.” Still, after a moment, he pointed out a few favorites: “I was able to secure a 35 word inscription plus mission details from Buzz Aldrin, in which he brings to life an Apollo 11 earth orbit image with the text from his silent communion prayer—the one that he said shortly after landing on the moon. I also persuaded Al Worden to write out his poem “Blast Off” from his book, Hello Earth: Greeting from Endeavour. He wrote that in the shape of a rocket on an Apollo 15 launch pad image—now that is pretty unique!”

Image of lunar landing inscribed by Buzz Aldrin

Image of lunar landing inscribed by Buzz Aldrin

While Cantwell and I discuss a number of his favorites across many Apollo missions, I am stunned by the breadth and depth of his Buzz Aldrin collection. Especially since Aldrin now charges more than $350 just for his signature, and $50 for each individual word. Cantwell owns over 100 such large format images from Aldrin in his collection with lengthy inscriptions, including the 35 word silent prayer image. I found myself doing the math as Cantwell spoke. “The original idea was to have an A-Z collection of the Apollo 11 mission in images and inscriptions—Aldrin arriving at the car park in his Corvette, right on through launch, to landing, to splash down, to the crew gazing at the first moon rock returned.”

And while Cantwell spent considerable time and money with Aldrin completing his collection, Aldrin often went off script with his inscriptions, adding his own words and

quotes—many in a playful and sometimes sarcastic tone. These inscriptions and images are some of the most powerful in the collection, having been written by one of the first humans to land on the moon. The Aldrin part of the collection would be virtually impossible to duplicate today and serves as a rare historic record of the mission and the personality of the second man to leave his mark on the lunar surface.

Buzz Aldrin inscribed image of the splashdown of the Apollo 11 space capsule

Buzz Aldrin inscribed image of the splashdown of the Apollo 11 space capsule

“We’ve seen a lot of space photography in our careers here at the Cosmosphere,” said Orwoll, as we wandered the gallery together. “But there are many images in the Cantwell collection which nobody had paid attention to before—not seeing the uniqueness of that moment in time and how, with the deft mind of Leslie, the emotion and the moment could be conjoined to make a very powerful piece of art. We’re all still absorbing the images and people’s favorites seem to be shifting every couple of days!”

If you’re looking for a weekend destination that combines history and historic signatures and inscriptions, you owe it to yourself to stop by the Cosmosphere before these photos head back home to England. It is a once in a lifetime treat that might inspire you to take your collection in a whole new direction.