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Sci-Tech

How much would you pay to own a piece of space history?

A part of the first computer in space comes to the auction block.

Want an out-of-this-world gift for the space nerd on your holiday list? Then consider a piece of the computer that helped guide the Gemini 3 spacecraft.

A Dallas auction house on Monday began accepting bids for part of the computer that flew with astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young as they orbited the Earth on March 23, 1965. It was NASA's first two-man space mission, and the first to require an on-board computer.

Grissom and Young are among NASA's most celebrated astronauts. Grissom was one of the seven astronauts profiled in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," and was the second American in space. He was killed in 1967 during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission.

The memory component inside an acrylic display measures 4.75 inches by 4.75 inches by 0.5 inches.

Heritage Auctions

Young made six space flights during his 42 years of active service with NASA. He was also the ninth person to walk on the surface of the moon.

The computer installed on Gemini 3 helped the pair return from their four and a half hours aboard the space capsule. It wasn't what you'd call petite. The entire computer weighed 59 pounds and the memory component, known as a "memory plane," measures 4.25 inches. All that area held a mere 4,096 bits of storage, or about half a kilobyte. (In comparison, this story you're reading takes up more than 130 kilobytes.)

And yet, the computer -- built six years before Intel introduced the first microprocessor -- performed a then-impressive 7,000 calculations a second. It set the stage for the Apollo missions to the moon, said Paul Ceruzzi, who curates the electronics and computing collection at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. "Gemini was a rehearsal for that, in Earth orbit," he said.

The earlier Mercury missions didn't need their own computers, according to NASA's "Computers in Spaceflight." Re-entry was calculated by a computing center on the ground. Retrofire times and firing attitudes were transmitted to the sole astronaut, who manually conducted the maneuvers.

The memory component in Gemini 3 consisted of "tiny doughnuts of magnetic material, with tiny wires going through holes."

IBM/Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience

The Gemini 3 flight is credited with another "first" besides first computer and two-man mission. It carried the first contraband into space: a corned beef sandwich from Wolfie's Restaurant and Sandwich Shop at the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach,Florida, according to Space.com. Young pulled the sandwich out of his spacesuit's pocket two hours into the flight, spraying the capsule with crumbs. NASA was not amused.

The memory plane on auction is composed of "tiny doughnuts of magnetic material," said Ceruzzi.

"This little piece is responsible, in its own way, for ushering in the Space Age," said Heritage Auctions historian Michael Riley of the device. "Look what it accomplished."

Heritage Auctions set the initial price of the memory plane at $1,200. Online bids will be accepted through November 5. A live auction, which includes an online component will take place on November 6.