Editor's Note: The original online version and the print version of this story included a photograph of artifacts made available to us by the owner of a space-gear website accompanied by a label that said, "Black Markets." Wired did not intend to suggest that the articles sold on this site were obtained illicitly, and we regret if any readers reached that conclusion.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to fly into the black reaches of outer space, an experience he described as godless and beautiful. He died in a plane crash less than seven years later, in 1968, but the memory of his mission lives on in history books – and here at Izmailovo, a market in northern Moscow that's home to the world's most sprawling collection of illicit Russian space artifacts. I'm talking to a vendor named Vladimir, who, to protect himself from the bitter cold, has put on a pair of orange space gloves, which he swears belonged to Gagarin, and a bubble-shaped space helmet. A $2, 000 price tag hangs off his right pinkie, and a $1, 000 marker dangles from the helmet. Eager to make a sale, Vladimir lifts the face shield, revealing a set of bulging eyes and a two-day beard. "So, " he says, speaking English with a heavy Russian accent to a tourist snapping a photo, "you wanna be a spaceman?"
Vladimir's stall is among hundreds that line Izmailovo's muddy pathways like a set of crooked teeth. Vendors hawk everything from pirated DVDs to antique rifles, just like any weekend market in the US. But Izmailovo's proximity to the famed cosmonaut training ground Star City – 90 minutes away by pothole-riddled streets – makes this bazaar unique. There are dozens of vendors peddling the same kind of wares as Vladimir. With a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth, he shows off artifacts that would be right at home in a museum clearance sale – an $800 leather headset, a $1, 000 heat-resistant jumper with a Russian flag on the sleeve, and his prize, a $40, 000 space suit from a 1971 Soyuz spacecraft.
From the streets of eastern Europe to the toniest auction houses in London and New York, the market for Russian space memorabilia is booming. Credit the spike in demand to resurging public interest in space (thank you, Mars rovers). And with NASA's total lockdown on US artifacts, Russian items are the only way to go. Despite Vladimir's personal guarantees – "You'd look like a professional cosmonaut in this suit. It's the real thing." – most of the gear is unauthenticated, and some of it is definitely counterfeit. But if you're looking for an electronic control board that really could be from the Mir Inter-national Space Station ($2, 000 at Izmailovo), a Strizh full-pressure space suit ($8, 595 on eBay), or even a Russian space shuttle ($5 million from a Warsaw-based dealer), there has never been a better time. "There are so many emotional tugs associated with the material – human achievement, pride, memories of being a child and seeing the landing on the moon, " says Robert Pearl-man, who runs an online dealer called CollectSpace.com. "Collecting space material is all about tapping into these emotions. People will pay a lot for that."
There's not much information available about the 45-year history of the Soviet/Russian space program. Insiders say that 256 Russian cosmonauts have trained at Star City since the facility opened in 1960, and 96 have been to space. There could be hundreds of custom suits in existence, twice as many sets of gloves, thousands more headsets and suit liners, and 115 spacecraft. Combine the uncertainty of what actually exists with consumers who just want to believe that they're seeing the real thing, and you have the makings of a healthy black market.
Driving the Russian space trade is a slippery supply chain of quasi-government operatives, ex-KGB officers, and Russian mafiosi. Artifacts enter the pipeline after they're filched from Star City – or purchased directly from former cosmonauts – and trickle down to flea markets, galleries, online dealers, and ultimately collectors. It's a shadowy world, but there is a guy who appears to be the kingpin – a Polish national known as Russian-Space, or RS. RS is a one-man international bazaar of what dealers refer to as "legally stolen" space goods. He lives in Warsaw but has a million-dollar spread in Moscow, where he works several weeks every year.
After months of monitoring international auction sites, lurking on space collector message boards, and slowly chatting my way up the chain, I begin corresponding with RS by email, and then talking with him on the phone through a translator. He gradually reveals some details about his below-the-board business, including the Buran space shuttle he's eager to unload. "I've been trying to sell it for $5 million, but I'll give it to you for $1 million, " he jokes in deep, guttural Russian before offering me a chunk of moon rock for $30, 000. (He later puts it on eBay.) There are 842 pounds of moon rock on Earth, most of it gathered during the Apollo missions. Almost 841 pounds are under US government control; locating those last few ounces is almost impossible. "Most of the moon rock that shows up there is bogus, " Pearlman says after seeing RS's offering. But I have to say, that one looked real."
RS got into what he calls "the game" 14 years ago when he met some Russians in Warsaw looking for young, gutsy guys to sell stolen aviation parts – engines, ignition systems, and battery products. He learned Russian by listening to tapes because he saw it as "an open door to big cash." From there, it was a smooth transition into the space trade. Russian mobsters and smugglers were raiding the property of the fallen communist government, and everything was for sale. "My contact brought me a space suit and said it'd bring good money, " he says. "I thought it was a joke."
RS started selling suits, helmets, and gloves in Poland. By the mid-'90s, he was posting his wares on eastern European auction sites and then elsewhere on the Net. "I sell some smaller stuff on eBay and other auction sites, " he tells me. "But most of it is word of mouth. It's a very private, secret world. A business of no names."
RS says the recent space exploration and moon tourism buzz has been good for business. He claims to have sold 15 suits for $3, 000 to $150, 000 each last year. Add 50 pairs of gloves for $600 to $2, 000, and 10 to 20 helmets for about a grand a piece, and RS makes a very good living.
There's no mystery about where he gets the goods. "Let's not play around, " RS says, laughing. "These things don't just come from the moon. I know an ex-general and a former top KGB officer, people like that, big people." RS says he's part of "a very big international organization, " which is no doubt a euphemism for the mob. "The mafia is all over Star City, " says Joseph Gutheinz, a Texas attorney who spent the late 1990s as a NASA investigator helping to hunt down stolen moon rocks and to root out corruption in Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.