David trained to be a teacher at Brentwood College of Education, and taught at Hellesdon High School, Acle Primary School and Neatherd High School in Norfolk. He gained a science degree from the Open University, and used his scientific knowledge and his passion for astronomy to build up an online business trading in space rocks and other space memorabilia.
Early life in Essex
I was born in 1951 in Walthamstow, East London. I grew up just outside London at a place called Chingford in Essex on the edge of Epping Forest. Most cockneys, like my Dad, who was an East Ender, had this ambition to move eastward and northward. So we did. We moved from Chingford to Hornchurch, then from Hornchurch to Hutton in Essex.
Educational holidays: the start of an interest in fossils
Among cockneys, East Enders, education was, and I believe remains, a very important thing. My father and mother inculcated into me a real interest in anything like that. All our holidays, such as they were, were basically educational trips. We never did the Butlin’s thing or anything like that.
I suppose a formative thing for me was having a holiday in Charmouth in Dorset when I was about five or six. It was a long old drive down there. It’s now called the Jurassic Coast. It wasn’t as well-known then as it is now. But the beach was littered with beautiful Jurassic fossils. That’s what started it off for me. From the age of five onwards I became interested in anything to do with fossils and then rocks and minerals, and that’s when I started collecting them.
I had a terrific collection of fossils. Even in Essex, which isn’t the most promising place to go fossil hunting, I discovered you could find them in gravel driveways and things like that. I’ve still got the first fossil I ever found. That was before we even went to Charmouth. It was a fossil sea urchin that I found in the garden of my house in Hornchurch in Essex.
On one of these very educational type holidays we went into a junk shop in Ilfracombe in Devon, and there was a little round black rock. It was called a tektite, when material from space has hit the Earth and melted the local rock. I was so fascinated by this that I spent my whole holiday’s pocket money on it on the first day. I’ve still got it. These days they are much more abundant, but then they were quite rare and quite expensive.
Educational holidays: meteorites, and Patrick Moore
On another of my father’s educational trips, as it were, he took me down to Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, where the Royal Greenwich Observatory was at the time. While we were exploring the grounds I found this shallow crater with dark-looking rock lying at the bottom. And even as a kid I thought, ‘This must be a meteorite!’
When we got home we went to the library and did some research. Dad said, ‘Why don’t you get in touch with Patrick Moore?’ So I wrote to Patrick Moore and sent this piece of stone to him. Not many people knew about meteorites in those days, and Sir Patrick was no exception. He showed it to a few people. He then sent it back to me and said, ‘I can’t be sure one way or the other.’ I now know it wasn’t. It’s what we in the trade call a ‘meteorwrong’ as opposed to a meteorite. It looked remarkably like a meteorite and had all the right properties but it was something else.
Sir Patrick invited me down to his house in East Grinstead. My brother and I and my dad went down to visit him. That was the first time I met Sir Patrick. I was seven years old, and it was obviously a very formative moment in my life. In those days, after the war, children were pretty much seen and not heard. It was only once a month, but my brother and I used to stay up and watch The Sky at Night on telly. It was a real frisson watching Sir Patrick talking on there, because we had met the guy and he’d been so kind and entertained us in his house.
Desperate to be an astronaut!
I was fortunate to be born in the fifties, when so much was happening to do with space. Right from when I was a little kid, six or seven, I kept a diary of every satellite launch and every space launch. In 1957 there were two really bright comets, comet Mrkos and comet Arend-Roland. Even at the age of six they made an impression on me. The first Sputnik was launched in 1957. Then when I was ten in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. When Alan Shepard became the first American in space, I thought the thing was so exciting. At the time when everyone else wanted to be a footballer or a popstar I was desperate to become an astronaut.
I was lucky enough to pass the 11 plus. I went on to a grammar school that was very science-oriented. It was also, amazingly, a back-door entrance to Cambridge. My brother went to Cambridge. He went to Peterhouse to study the Natural Sciences Tripos. I was going to follow, but I wanted to be an astronaut.
Training at Dartmouth
So instead of going to university at that time, much to everybody’s shock and horror, I joined the navy. I went to Dartmouth, the naval officers’ college down in Devon. I did my studies there and passed out of Dartmouth. I went on to be a flier, to become a naval pilot. I flew helicopters but I didn’t get to fly fast jets. It turned out I wasn’t that good at it. After a couple of crashes and another near miss, I was asked if I’d like to go back to being a normal naval officer on a ship. (What was disparagingly called a ‘fishhead’ by pilots!). To. Having washed out in flight training, I would have had to go back to Dartmouth.
I was quite young. I’d only signed up for a three-year commission as my step towards becoming an astronaut. At the time most of the astronauts were either navy or marine pilots, and I thought that was the way forward. I was determined I wasn’t going to sign up for 12 years as a naval officer, so in 1968 I left Dartmouth and the navy.
Training to be a teacher
By the time I left the navy, I couldn’t go to university. It was too late to apply through UCCA or anything else. My mother said, ‘Brentwood College of Education is looking for mature students, which you are now, having been in the navy.’ So I became a teacher almost by default.
I went to Brentwood College of Education in Essex, which eventually became part of what is now Anglia Ruskin University. I am one of their alumni and feature occasionally in their magazines.
In those days people learned to be a teacher properly. You did a three-year Certificate in Education specializing, in my case, in science. These days they do a three-year university course then do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. A Certificate of Education in the early days was classified as a degree.
I could have stayed on an extra year and done a Batchelor of Education degree. But by that time I was engaged and thought I’d better start earning some money.
The move to Norfolk
It was just one of those things that made me move to Norfolk. Twelve of us at college decided to have a last holiday together before we all went our separate ways. We booked a boat on the Norfolk Broads from Wroxham. We had such a good time up there. My first wife was quite high up in the civil service. The civil service, like teaching, is one of those jobs you can do just about anywhere in the country. So I thought, ‘Let’s move up to Norfolk.’ I could start my teaching career up there; my wife could transfer to what in those days was called the Central Computing Agency, which eventually morphed into HMSO. So that’s how we moved up to Norfolk. That was in 1971.
Teaching at Hellesdon High School
I started my teaching career in Hellesdon High School. It wasn’t a High School then, it was a Secondary Modern. At that time they had a subject in school which I think was extremely useful and appropriate. It was called Agriculture and Rural Science. In those days a lot of children in rural Norfolk ended up working in nurseries, with livestock, or in general agriculture or horticulture. With my qualifications, A levels and S levels in science, they thought I could bring a little extra to the subject. The guy who had taught it, a very popular and well-loved teacher, dropped dead in front of the class one day. That meant they were stuck for a teacher to take the subject.
I remember the knock on the door and the headmaster saying, ‘Will you come and teach Agriculture and Rural Science at my school on Monday?’ I hadn’t even applied for the job at that stage. I was obviously registered at County Hall, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’
Providing food for local people
I think I spent between 12 and 16 years at Hellesdon. While I was there I became an examiner at the East Anglian Examinations Board. I wrote what were Mode 2 and Mode 3 GCSEs, (CSEs as they were then), in Agricultural Science and Environmental Science. Eventually myself and another teacher, Gerry Rickets, built the subject up into quite a large department at the school. It was very popular. Virtually every year we were oversubscribed with boys and girls wanting to do both. It was tremendous fun and we used to provide food, vegetables, and soft fruit, and dressed poultry, to all the local elderly people. I enjoyed that teaching job: it was very satisfying and rewarding. There was an astronomy club there for kids, that was quite well attended. I used to run quite a few clubs. In those days it was expected that you would.
Secondary Modern to High School
When the school changed from a Secondary Modern into a High School it became much more academic. They appointed a headmaster who had ideas about turning it into, if you like, a proper High School. Gradually Environmental Science and Rural Science were kind of marginalized. I thought it was ridiculous. This was a very successful department where the children were doing very well.
They started doing A levels and I became one of the first sixth form tutors there. I was doing some A level Biology and Zoology and General Science and stuff like that. I ran the Environmental Science department. It was good fun, but I was getting slightly disenchanted with the way the teaching thing was moving.
A move to primary teaching
My first wife decided she wanted to start a family, so she left the civil service. She was on quite a good salary at the time. She bought a hotel at Gorleston on the East Coast. Just for a year I was commuting from the hotel in Gorleston to Hellesdon and it got to be just too much. And then we had two children, too, and I thought it would be good fun to teach them. I saw an advert in the Times Educational Supplement for a Year Six teacher at Acle Primary School, so I applied for that as Key Stage Two leader. In strict educational terms it was a demotion to Scale Two, but it was more relaxing. I had my two kids moved to the school and so I had the chance to teach them both which was good fun.
A final teaching post, and further study of astronomy
Much later on I finished my teaching career in Dereham at a school called Neatherd High School. I had an incredibly inspirational Head of Science. He was a really mad keen astronomer and he ran astronomy lessons so I taught astronomy there. I did some work with the sixth form, too, but that was right at the end of my career.
Astronomy has always been something that was parallel to my work and other interests. It’s part of Key Stage Two science, the Earth in space modules of the National Curriculum. I also wrote it into the curriculum for the M2/M3 of the Environmental Science CSEs and GCSEs that I wrote, but as I say it was something that carried on in parallel. It was also the basis of my degree with the Open University.
An Open University degree, with a focus on astronomy
What with the stress of being the head of a key stage in a big primary school and running a hotel, my first marriage unfortunately ended after 24 years. I lived on my own for a while, and then I met somebody else. We’ve now been married for 27 years. I met her through birdwatching. As it happened she was doing an Open University degree. She had a background in the arts, and was a Bursar of a school.
I thought I’d keep her company by doing an OU degree myself. I’d already got a Certificate of Education, which counted several credits toward a degree. You have to do what’s called the Foundation Year, which is a general science year. Everything I did after that was the various planetary astronomy and cosmology options, all that sort of stuff with the OU. I then got a BSc which was mostly astronomy and biology. It had a large element of biochemistry, too, because that was a passion of mine. My older daughter was doing a DPhil in biochemistry at the time.
All the way through I carried on teaching. It was funny, being a primary school teacher and studying for a degree. Now you have to have a degree to teach. In those days I was the only person in the school who had a degree, apart from the headmaster. He did a degree in medieval history, which was totally irrelevant. It made no difference to my career at all, but it made a difference to my personal direction in life.
Out of teaching, into meteorites
I was growing more and more disillusioned with teaching. The headmaster I had at Acle was a wonderful chap, but he moved on as they often do. He got head-hunted to be an advisory teacher and his replacement and I did not get on at all, it was useless. I realised that as a key stage leader I was watching my staff seemingly spending all of their time running scared of failing in an Ofsted inspection or something like that. All the pleasure and fun I had experienced in teaching seemed to be dissipated.
After 35 years in teaching you can take early retirement at a slightly reduced pension. I thought, ‘Let’s go for that.’ Knowing that I had to do something for a living in the three or four years running up to the 35-year mark, I discovered that meteorites were available from various parts of the world. Increasingly, because of the Internet, you could contact collectors and dealers all over the planet. You could negotiate and buy the things, and I started importing them into England. At the time there were only two of us doing it.
However, there’s no point being a qualified teacher and not using those skills that you’ve acquired. Throughout my time as a dealer I’ve been asked to lecture at most of the big public schools and at various august groups. I’ve lectured for the Open University, and I’ve lectured at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge many times.
One of the first internet sellers
I started selling meteorites online in 1998, when the Internet first kicked in. I remember buying my first personal computer with some primitive dial-up. It was a 486. You were trying to connect with the internet with a modem, and as you know it was so slow. Even sending emails was dreary. But it was so exciting at the time. Amazingly I came across a website called Bidville, which it was people buying and selling things on line. Everybody takes that for granted now but back in 1998/99 that was something completely new. To discover that you could buy and sell commodities globally, it made me realise I could make a business out of this. So from being a passion and an interest – like a glorified hobby – I knew I could make a living, or at least augment my pension.
Early contacts in North Africa
I was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a Fellow of the British Astronomical Society. Through those groups and going to meetings and things like that I came into contact with people who knew other people, as it were. I got a few meteorites, and began to bring some into the country. I started to attend rock and gem shows to sell them. I was the only person there selling meteorites, but a lot of the mineral dealers and fossil dealers had contacts, particularly in North Africa. There was a guy in Cambridge who had a workshop in Morocco, in Casablanca actually. He said, ’Oh, you know, local collectors, Arabs, bring all kinds of stuff in to us, and in among them are what I am sure are meteorites. I’ll put you in touch with a few.’
These Berbers were living in rather straitened circumstances because of on-going conflict in the Western Sahara, southern Morocco region, where three countries meet. There is a big refugee camp where a lot of them live. They were just looking round in the desert for anything to earn a bit of money. They were finding seashells, fossil shells, and flint implements – Neolithic implements – all kinds of stuff. They would bring them into the bigger dealers in fairs in Morocco, in Casablanca and places like that. When they got to know that I was interested in these, the bigger dealers began to contact me directly. In the end I was able to make a chain of contacts and bring the things in.
How to find meteorites in the Sahara
When I first started buying them from the Berbers I used to have to tell them how to look for them. The vast majority of meteorites, apart from the very rarest ones, are attracted to a magnet because they have nickel/iron in them. They would literally have a small, very powerful magnet called a neodymian magnet. Without bending over, if they saw anything dark or unusual lying there they would put the magnet to it and pick it up and stick it in their pocket. Now they have electromagnets hanging down the back of their Toyota land cruisers. They put the thing on cruise control and cruise along at 4 or 5 kilometres an hour reading a book or something like that. After a kilometre they stop and see what’s stuck on the back of their electromagnets.
A stony common chondrite, the normal meteorite from the North Africa, is usually dark, even black. They are easy to find there because on the many limestone plateaux in the Sahara, they stick out like a sore thumb. Against the white background they are easy to pick up.
Importance to the Moroccan economy
For the Moroccans the export of mineral samples and fossils is such an important part of their economy. Morocco has got incredible deposits of fossils, particularly dinosaur fossils. The famous spinosaurus that’s in Jurassic Park, the big one with the frill along its back – they found thousands of fossils of those. You can buy spinosaurus teeth for just a couple of quid. Export of these things from Morocco is very important, and the result is that they allow the export of meteorites freely. This means that any Berber or Tuareg who finds a meteorite wanders across into Morocco with it. That’s because the country they’ve found it in, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, probably doesn’t allow the export of them. So you never really know where a lot of these meteorites are found. I get fewer mixed bags or boxes of stuff because more of the Berbers know what they are looking for these days. There is also a network of dealers and collectors in the big cities in Morocco.
Building up the meteorite business
David Bryant: professional dealer
I’m a member of the IMCA, the International Meteorite Collectors’ Association, which is a professional body. In this particular context most of the people in it are dealers rather than collectors. Any collectors in it are very high-powered collectors – professor this or doctor that, people who have been collecting meteorites for donkey’s years. If you are elected to be in the IMCA, (I am member 1898) you are entitled to put your logo on your website and on your certificates of authenticity. People seeing that know that you are not some kind of cowboy.
I’ve got a database of thousands and thousands of meteorites, so if anyone buys a meteorite from me they get an A4 fact sheet, which also counts as a certificate of authenticity. Round the world, that’s recognized. I’ve given or sold meteorites to some very famous people: film stars, pop stars, astronauts, astronomers.
If ever I misrepresented anything to anyone once and got found out, that would be the end of me. You’ve only got to get caught out once. There was a dealer who most people suspect was claiming origins or provenance for meteorites that were not justified. He’s dropped off the planet – from being one of the best-known faces in meteoritics in Britain he’s gone now. You need knowledge, you need reputation. If I were to offer you a lump of something and tell you it was from Mars, you’d want to know how I knew. You have to have that science background to have the credibility. The fact that I’ve been doing it so long means I have an international reputation for being a dealer in meteorites.
Who buys meteorites?
I think sometimes people buy meteorites on a whim. When we sell lunar meteorites, one of the tag lines I use in my advertising is, ‘If you’ve ever promised her the moon, now you can deliver a bit of it’ – or words on that theme. People will buy one or two little meteorites just for fun.
A comet exploded over Russia a few years ago at a place called Chelyabinsk. There was a widely-watched film on the telly of the object coming and exploding over the Russian town. All comets have a very thick surface of rock and dust that they have collected on their journey. I’ve got trays full of little pebbles from the surface of the object that blew up over Chelyabinsk which would have come from the Oort cloud. I was the first person to import them from Russia and I got them directly from Chelyabinsk. I sold loads of those to people who probably would never buy another meteorite. Some people just want one big meteorite to put on their desk. I’ve sold iron meteorites with a mass of 50 kilos to Japanese businessmen to sit on their desk.
When someone buys a meteorite, it is caveat emptor, but to make a successful purchase you’ve got to know what you are doing. If you were to talk to any of my customers or clients, whether they are universities or schools or societies or individuals, you find that it is usually with me a question of building up a relationship and trust. People phone me up and say, ‘I would really like such and such, can you get me one?’
I’ll negotiate, ‘Are you sure? What do you want? How much do you want to spend on it? Do you know what else is available?’
The one thing I never tell anyone is, ‘They’re a great investment.’ In fact they have generally proven to be such: I remember selling one of my oldest customers a lump of pallasite. Pallasites are the most beautiful meteorites. They come from the core-mantle boundary of a planet that broke up. You’ve got this beautiful shiny silver metallic-looking matrix with gorgeous green and yellow and orange crystals of olivine suspended in them. They are very expensive. He bought this lump from me with a mass of about half a kilo, and, as he’s always fond of reminding me, he paid about £200. You could buy a car with what it’s worth now.
Samples for study or display
I only break samples up into pieces if it’s justified. I don’t do it just for the fun of it. I think it’s terrible when people do that. The great majority of stony meteorites look ordinary on the surface, but inside they could be quite revealing. They could be brachiated; they might have little vesicles. They almost always have sparkly metallic inclusions. Some may have what they call blebs, that’s spheres of shiny nickel/iron inside them. Pallasites look like nothing until you cut them and polish them. Certainly for study purposes or for display I often do cut and polish. What would you rather have, a muddy looking ‘cricket ball’, or would you like something that’s got a polished window showing the beautiful structure inside it?
I don’t only sell them. Whenever you see someone on the TV waving a meteorite around it’s generally one of mine. When Brian Cox did his Cosmos programmes they borrowed all the meteorites for that and used them on the show.
Some typical trade values
Meteorites are bought and sold internationally by their mass, and rarity is obviously a factor too. For example, a solid Martian meteorite the size of a grape would be worth thousands of pounds.
The thing I sell most of are little lunar or Martian fragments. I sell more of these than anything else. I wholesale them to geology supply houses and to other dealers and collectors around the world. I have a contact in Germany who owns several main masses of Martian meteorites. When he cuts them up to do slices of them, the crumbs and little pieces that fall off them, I buy from him in little illustrated boxes. Inside in a little window at the top of it you can see a two- or three-millimetre square fragment of a lunar meteorite with a mass of about 20 mg or something like that. I’d sell those for about £20. The going rate used to be £1000 a gram, but it’s come down as they find more and more and bigger material.
Recently a guy got in touch with me from Tunisia. He and some other collectors, Arabs, had discovered a huge strewn field, as it’s called, of little lunar meteorites the size of a large pea, a marrowfat pea. Amazing little things. They have a NWA number, that stands for North West Africa. The NWA number lets you know they are from the Sahara region. Then they have a number according to when they are found. The first was NWA1. These little lunar meteorites are NWA11783, I think, so roughly the 12,000th meteorite that’s been recovered.
They have a mass of about 1/3 to ½ a gram. I’m able to sell those for £30. A lunar meteorite would have been worth hundreds and hundreds of pounds 20 years ago. As things become more available, and in a greater amount, that affects the price. Something very rare, or beautiful, will command a higher price than something that is not particularly attractive or uncommon.
These days I tend to buy the rarer meteorites from other dealers, unless I find one myself. I’ve got a friend in Germany called Stefan who’s an expert and (before the pandemic) travelled to North SAfri9ca to obtain new material. He’s got numbers of lunar and Martian meteorites. I’ve got another friend called Robert in Argentina who I get iron meteorites from.
Martian and lunar meteorites are quite rare. About 300 have come from the Moon, about 120 to 140 are now known to have arrived here from Mars. Given the number of collectors and museums and scientific bodies around the Earth you can see that there is a big demand for those. I have plenty of lunar and Martian fragments in stock, but the biggest ones I get would be no bigger than the size of a grape.
Regulation of the international trade in meteorites
Not every country on Earth will allow the export of meteorites. Increasingly they have realised that these things are getting bought up and exported. It is a bit like the Elgin Marbles from Greece. We haven’t put any value on meteorites for the last thousand years. Now that there’s an international trade in them we suddenly realise they are important.
Some countries are controlling the export for financial reasons. Others, like Australia, are much more sensitive about the cultural history of their country. In Australia the control of aboriginal land and artifacts is so rigid now that if somebody finds aboriginal artifacts, for example, on a piece of land, that land almost certainly would revert back to the local aboriginal tribe. It is the same with the meteorites. They are so determined that they won’t lose their cultural heritage that Australia banned the export of meteorites except under rare licences some years ago. Other countries followed suit.
Commercial exploitation and skulduggery
So many people think they’ve found a meteorite. Unfortunately when people phone me up or email me they tend to say, ‘I’ve found a meteorite in the garden. Can you tell me how much it’s worth?’
Some TV series see everything was in terms of what something is worth. They’ll say, ‘Yeah, this has got to be worth 50 bucks. That one there must be about 200 bucks.’ I’m passionate about where these things come from, what they tell us about possible formation of life in the Solar System, or the planetary formation, origins of the planet, their ages, the ages of the planets.
Dealers from a certain country which has had a rapid rise into capitalism from communism have started travelling around the world buying up everything they can get their hands on and turning it into a commodity. You try and buy wonderful geode clusters or fossil fish from Brazil and you find merchants from this country have been over and bought the lot. Not content with that, they’d also flooded eBay and other online auction sites with lots of fake material. Unbelievable.
In Britain there’s a guy who floods British eBay with lunar this, Martian that. He knows nothing about meteorites at all. He just copies bits out of other people’s adverts. He’s got bits of granite or any old rubbish on there.
Some fake material comes with a certificate, but anyone can write a certificate, can’t they? If you’ve got Word or MS Publisher you make your own certificate.
Classification of meteorites; the role of the Natural History Museum
If you were to send me a lump of rock and say, ‘I’ve found this in the garden, is it a meteorite?’ I’d look at it and I’d know right away whether it was or not. But it would still only have a notional value unless we had it classified and named. In Britain the authority that would do that would be the Natural History Museum.
If I thought I’d found a meteorite here, or something unusual in one of the parcels I got from North Africa, I’d take it along to the Natural History Museum, or these days send it to them, having first contacted them. They’d analyse it and check what it was and say, ‘Yes, it’s a carbonaceous meteorite.’ Or a common chondrite. And classify it according to various grading methods. Meteorites are classified very strictly according to their physical and chemical makeup. They might say, ‘Yes, it’s a CV3, or an H3, or something like that.’ And then it would be given a name. They are normally named after the place where they fell. If it fell on Blofield Heath it would be called BH1 or something like that.
It’s a free service, but they would insist on keeping 10% of the item. They have a huge collection of meteorites in the Natural History Museum, well over 6,000 specimens, usually really good ones. Sadly only a few dozen are on display; the great majority are not. If you were to send a meteorite up to them now, I bet you wouldn’t hear from them for two years.
My wife makes jewellery from samples. I have a machine to cut things up and polish them. Anything that’s particularly attractive or small, little nickel/iron meteorites from Russia or from the famous fall in Canyon Diablo in Arizona – people like having those as jewellery. She’s done a course in silver-smithing over the years. She makes all her own findings and puts things together. One of the popular items she has are these little crystal pendants with silver findings, the hinges, and in them is a lunar meteorite, or a Martian meteorite. Believe it or not you can get diamonds from space, things called carbonados. It is now known that diamond is quite common in the universe. There is a whole range of rocks called ureilites that have diamonds in them.
A lifetime’s love, and study, of astronomy
My initial interest in space was two-fold. Astronomy, the actual study of the planets and so on, but also astronautics, which is space travel. In the end I didn’t make it as an astronaut. In any case, Britain didn’t go down that route. They had one good rocket, the Blue Streak, but they cancelled that and that was us finished. It was not till many years later you got people like Tim Peake hitching a ride with the Russians or the Americans.
But astronomy was always a major passion, and has been deeply entrenched in my life. My brother was a mad-keen astronomer. We built telescopes and did lots of observations which we used to merrily send off to Sir Patrick Moore. He used to write back. I’ve taught astronomy to schools all over the country but never as an academic subject. I’ve done Stargazing Live three times.
There are two main areas of amateur astronomy. One is planetary astronomy, which is looking at the moon and the planets and asteroidal bodies. The other is what is called deep field, which is things outside our galaxy: other galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and other kind of stuff. I’ve always preferred the planetary side of things. Meteorites just fitted into that.
When I was doing my Open University degree, one of the things I discovered was that modern astronomy was becoming quite exciting in terms of modern ideas of cosmogeny, string theory, and things like that. Various new views of the universe, not just the Big Bang but all kinds of innovation. Also I fell in love with the planetary astronomy that we were studying. It was being mooted that there were meteorites on Earth which had arrived here from the moon, quite a new idea back in those days. I got very interested in this. I started reading about it, researching and doing extra study. I suppose meteorites and planetary astronomy became the focus of my own personal interest.
When we tried to sell the business we had three really good customers lined up. One of them was an astronomer. He had a really good astronomy company, telescopes and tripods and stuff. He spent some time with us and said, ‘I’m 64 and I could sit here and listen to you for the next ten years and not know’ (I’m going to sound immodest, but this is what he said) ‘a fiftieth of what you know.’
I said, ‘Well I’ve been studying astronomy and meteoritics for fifty or sixty years, what do you expect?’
Flown space craft
Quite early on I had a contact in Germany from whom I got loads of V1 and V2 rocket parts. I found that the Americans were very keen to trade those for things that I was much more interested in, which was Saturn rockets, bits of Mercury capsules, Gemini capsules, Apollo capsules. In the end I built up a business in parallel with the space rocks which was called ‘The Space Station’. Which shows how long ago it was. You couldn’t register a URL called the Space Station these days, could you? But you could back in 1998 when I started this business.
I was importing bits of flown spacecraft from America and from Russia chiefly, but also from Germany. Amazingly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union their space scientists weren’t getting paid. One of them got in touch with me through my website, the Space Station, saying ‘Look, there’s a few of us here, who still work at Baikonur, but we haven’t been paid. We’ve got a Russian space shuttle here called Buran. It’s in a hangar and after its one flight the hangar collapsed and squashed it. Would you like some bits of it?’
I said ‘Yeah, please.’ I had joysticks and thermal tiles from the outside of it. They were going into the flown space craft storage facilities and they’d get me all kinds of things. I had bits from really famous spacecraft – Vostoks, Voskhods and Soyuz. I used to sell them through the website.
Meeting the astronauts: ‘a privilege’
One day a guy got in touch with me and said, ‘I’m doing an event at a hotel in Northampton. It’s an autograph show. As well as film stars there’ll be Apollo astronauts. Would you like to bring along some of your material to display and possibly sell?’
I said, ‘Yes of course.’ I was associated with that organisation, called Autografica, right the way through until it ceased trading about three years ago. I would be sat in the room with Linda, my wife. Because I was the only person selling space flown hardware, we would sit there surrounded by American and Russian astronauts and we got to be very friendly. They knew us, we’d have dinner, go to breakfast with them, sit in the bar and drink. It wouldn’t be unusual. We used to have champagne receptions in our hotel suite and the astronauts would come along and we’d sit in the bar until three in the morning chatting.
I used to meet them at public events and private functions. There’s a guy up in Yorkshire, I don’t know if he still does it, who used to organise Astronaut Encounters. I used to be invited along to those too. I’ve met virtually all the Apollo astronauts, and I’ve met some very famous Russian cosmonauts. It’s been a privilege really to have met them and spoken with them. Some of them are amazingly friendly, cheerful people, good fun to spend time with, some of them less pleasant and full of their own self-importance, you know. Some of them are just very genial but play their cards close to their chests.
The men from the Moon
I’ve met virtually everyone who’s been to the Moon. Neil Armstrong was the most difficult of them all to get to meet. One afternoon I got a phone call from a friend of mine who was the Air Intelligence Officer at Mildenhall air base. He said ‘Do you want to meet Neil Armstrong?’
I said, ‘Yeah!’
He said, ‘Right, he’s going to be in the Officers’ Club this afternoon if you and Linda can get across here, I’ll get you in.’
I’ve met all the Apollo 13 crew. So that’s Jim Lovell etc. and they are extremely friendly, approachable to work with, easy to talk to, good fun to be with. Buzz Aldrin was a difficult person. He could be quite brusque and he used to charge £400 for his autograph. You could sit and talk to him like we did, and because he knew us we got on alright.
Then you’ve got someone like Charlie Duke, the Apollo 16 astronaut. He was a lay preacher and so on. Several of the Apollo astronauts turned to religion after their experience in the space programme. Everything he did was guarded and careful.
My favourite of them all was Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14. Fantastic guy, Dr Mitchell. I met him loads of time and spent a lot of time with him. We had incredible discussions. He was born in Roswell, New Mexico. One of my other great interests is the UFO phenomenon. He shared with me a belief in it and a great enthusiasm for it.
Covid and the future of the business
Covid has had a major influence on us. About half of our income was from rock and mineral shows. I do lectures as well, around the country, or I did do, from as far north as Newcastle, as far west as Exeter. But you can’t do them now because you can’t travel because of Covid.
It’s halved our income really. Although our website is very popular. I already get a million hits a year, and that converts into enough to keep us ticking over. During lockdown I’ve done very well. It’s slowing a bit now but during lockdown and up to Christmas business was incredible.
I’m 70 now, and I’m lucky because I’ve had my Covid injections. I’ve been doing Zoom talks all the way during lockdown for astronomy groups. I have still got a high profile, I think, which is nice. It’s getting harder and harder to get the material. You just can’t buy the big iron meteorites any more. Argentina has closed its border to exports because of Covid. I’ve got a crate of meteorites stuck somewhere between Morocco and here at the moment., I’ve been in touch with my contact over there several times over the last months. He says he thinks customs are making it difficult to get things out of Morocco into Europe because of worries about Covid, because there’s not so much cargo traffic.
We are all holding our breath a bit to see what we can get. I’ve still got a vast stock. I have well over 15,000 meteorites at the moment.
I was going to retire a couple of years ago but in the end we decided I might as well carry on.
I’ll retire when either (a) I can no longer replace the material I’m selling, or (b) if the phone stops going. I’m still getting three or four good sensible email enquiries a day. I don’t operate a huge mark-up given that I’m adding provenance to things. Got to make a living, and see if the demand carries on and the supply continues.
Another problem of from our point of view is that, because we’re no longer in the EU, we have to pay VAT or import duties etc on items we bring in, just as we have always had to for items from outside the EU. But now anything I bring in from Italy or France or Germany or Sweden, suddenly you can add in total 20% to the price.
The last thought on this is that there is also saturation. Probably everybody in Britain who wants a meteorite is getting on towards having one. It’s hard to recruit new collectors. Like anything else, once you saturate the market, you are relying on people building collections. The great majority of the stuff I sell, whether it was pieces of meteorite or, in the old days, the space flown material, it generally wasn’t huge amounts to one collector. It was selling one or two items at a time.
I’ll carry on as long as those conditions still obtain or until I become too old and tired to do it. But I love doing it. I love the meteorites. I enjoy the people I work with. At the moment I have three big wholesale customers who keep us well afloat. So as long as they continue, there’s no need for me to stop doing it.
Meteorites: what are they and where can you find them?
The great majority of meteorites are debris left over from the formation of the Solar System about 4.5 billion years ago. The Sun and all the planets condensed from a huge cloud of gas and dust called the solar nebula, which itself originated in a supernova explosion of a population 2 star about 7 billion years ago. That cloud of dust and gas condensed at the centre of the Sun. Around it the fine particles joined together and grew bigger and bigger.
In time those lumps came together to form small planets. Those collided to liberate more material out into the solar nebula. Eventually everything got sorted out the way it is now. You have the eight major planets. You also have asteroids which are mostly found in what is called the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. There is lots more material right out beyond the edge of the Solar System, what’s called the Oort cloud. Which contains trillions of icy cometary bodies
Every square inch of the planet has probably got some meteorite material. At least 300 tons a day lands on Earth somewhere.
Meteorites in the UK
The thing about meteorites is, despite what people imagine, meteorites are very ordinary looking things. With a few exceptions, they just look like lumps of rock. A really fresh one that has just landed five minutes ago has a lovely dark sooty crust on it where it has come through the atmosphere and heated up to 6,000 degrees. But if one landed in the back garden, or the field behind your house, and you didn’t notice it, in our climate it would very quickly go rusty, even if it were a stony meteorite, because they have so much iron them.
The only way you’d know you’d found a meteorite is if you saw it. In Britain, of the hundred or so meteorites that are known from the British Isles, all but three were actually seen falling. Famously, one near Peterborough was actually seen plonking down in somebody’s garden and rolled under a hedge. The famous one in 1968 in Barwell in Leicestershire blew up over the village. People went out and collected bits and pieces. Laughlinbridge in Ireland was seen and heard by hundreds as it descended. Generally speaking, in a temperate climate and with grass and fields and meadows and agricultural areas like we have in Britain and France and Germany, meteorites only get found if they’re seen coming in. It would be an incredible piece of luck if you were to find one. Three have been found in Britain. You can make of this what you will: they were all found by the same person, allegedly.
Comets do come barrelling in from the Oort cloud sometimes. Something disturbs them in their orbit and they come screeching into the inner Solar System. Every planet in the Solar System is covered with craters: Mars, Mercury, and Venus, and even the Earth if you know where to look, and the Moon. Every satellite, every moon, like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn are covered with craters, and those are mostly comet impacts, with a few impacts from asteroids, which are solid objects.
Occasionally the Earth will swing through other debris or the tail of a comet. For example, most comets have in their wake clouds of rocky material. When the Earth goes through the tail of a comet, or through the orbit of a comet, if they are regular comets, like Halley’s comet or Encke’s comet we see a meteor shower. That is debris from comets burning up in the atmosphere because of friction with the air molecules.
The rarest group of all meteorites, which are known as achondrites, come from the surface of a planet or an asteroid. These have really only been known about for the last 20 years. How you recognize them, has only been recognized over the last 25 years, I suppose. The most plentiful are the lunar meteorites. About 300 meteorites are known to have arrived here from the Moon. A comet or asteroid impact on the Moon will throw up huge amounts of ejecta into space which can be captured by the Earth’s gravity and fall down to earth. About 300 are now known. When I first started doing this, it was less than a dozen. We know how to identify them by what is known as their relative oxygen isotopes and their chemistry, and by other features such as their age.
Magnetic properties of meteorites
All stony meteorites have iron or nickel in them, apart from the ones from planetary bodies like Mars or the Moon, so therefore they are attracted to a magnet. this is also why they are so dense. Off the top of my head, a normal stony meteorite will have a density between four and eight times that of water. For their size they are very heavy.
There is another class of meteorites, we used to call them siderites in the old days, that are almost pure nickel/iron. They are thought to be the cores of a small planet that was disrupted about 4.2 billion years ago – or several planets. By that time there was sort of cosmic billiards going on in the Solar System. Lots of chopping and changing and lots of collisions occurred for reasons that are not completely clear at the moment.
I should say that when a planet is formed it gets bigger and bigger through accretion. It spins through space and, like rolling a snowball down a slope to make a snowman, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. These protoplanets rolled around the Solar System and got larger by accretion, by material adhering to the outside.
When they get to a big enough size, the heating effects of radioactive decay and, gravitational tidal effects inside them, would cause differentiation: the heavy elements – nickel, iron, lead, tin and so on – would sink through to the centre to form a core. That’s why the rocky planets like the Earth, have a nickel/iron core, because the heavy metals have sunk through to the core leaving the mantle and crust layers depleted of those.
David Bryant (b. 1951) talking to WISEArchive by telephone at his home in Blofield Heath on 22nd February 2021.
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