Found Treasure

Treasure in the attic

How we discovered the FASE archive

It was a Spring morning and my step-mother was on the phone. “I’m getting rid of your father’s old photographs. Would you like them?”

My father, Peter Fairley, who had passed away in 1998, was never particularly sentimental. After my mother died we had to rescue a load of family photographs from the skip where he’d tipped them, thinking no-one would be interested. I thought she meant those. “Yes!” I said. “That’s my past!”

They arrived. Box after box, covered in dust. So many boxes. Had we really taken all these pictures?

Far from it. As I opened the first box I realised quickly this far more intriguing than a bundle of family snapshots. These were pictures of space!

The first box I’d opened contained dozens of signed pictures of astronauts. I’d known these as a young boy. I think I even had one or two on my bedroom wall. Every schoolboy on the planet wanted a signed picture of his hero, and in those days the astronauts were every bit as famous as footballers, racing drivers, or pop stars.

So fans had written in to NASA in their thousands. But astronauts are busy: they had a complicated day job! So NASA had an idea: have an astronaut sign one portrait and, using a special machine, they could mass produce them for every eager schoolchild (or adults) around the world.

That’s what I thought this box contained. Pictures with photocopied signatures. Until I came across one dedicated to me. From Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad and Gordon Cooper, the astronauts who circled the globe in Gemini V, all the way back in 1965. And then another, signed again, to my brother Duncan, and another, to my sister Josephine. These weren’t copies – these were real.

So we went back through the box, and about half of the portraits turned out to be the real thing. Whenever my father had met one of the astronauts for an interview, he’d got them to sign a picture of themselves and hold them as keepsakes – including the ones from Chuck and Gordon. We just never received saw them.

It took days to go through it all. Signed photography, original NASA prints, press packs, souvenir ware, space suit badges, signed space suit badges, mock-up boards for broadcast news, notes, newspapers – you name it – there was masses of it. When he retired from ITN (where he’d been Science Editor throughout the space race) he must have just taken all his files, put it all in cardboard boxes, put them in the attic, and forgotten about them.

But of all the treasures in the archive, there’s one category which probably surpasses all the rest: the transparencies. They’re big, about 5” x 4”. They’re in amazing condition, all kept in their original film sleeves with incredibly useful NASA printed notes explaining what each picture is of, when it was taken, and its reference number. And there’s hundreds of them.

It’s an odd thing to think that, only as far back as the 1980’s, the only way to really send an image around the globe was to do just that – send the image. By courier, or in the post. No email. No text messages. No Whatsapp. In the 60s, even colour TV was in its infancy.

So if NASA wanted people to see the pictures of man landing on the moon, if it wanted to promote its work in space exploration around the planet – which it most definitely did – it had to send the actual photographs. Once they’d received them, the networks and publishers could then broadcast them over the air, or print them in the news, books or magazines. And since ITN was, at the time, one of only two major news channels in the UK – and my Dad was the ‘Space Man’ – he was sent all of them.

And, fortunately for us today, he kept them too.

Alastair Fairley

Director, FASE Archive