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New frontiers for shuttle souvenirs

Courtesy of Robert Z. Pearlman

A collection of shuttle mission patches, including patches representing STS-1 (the first mission) and STS-135 (the last), can be an inexpensive way to keep spaceflight memories alive.

Space shuttle memorabilia may never be as highly prized as a spacesuit patch sprinkled with moondust — or a lock of Neil Armstrong's hair — but items from the 30-year space program are likely to rise in value as the shuttle era fades into the history books.

Moon-mission memorabilia will always get the top rating on the space souvenir scale, said Robert Pearlman, editor of CollectSpace.com, a website that tracks space history and artifacts as well as modern-day missions. "The peak item among all space history is something that's been to the moon, and in the process of that, picked up moondust," he told me.

Most of the material from the moon — ranging from rocks to dust-laden spacesuits and gloves — is held by NASA for research or by museums for display. Such objects are closely watched, and lunar larceny always makes for a good story: The recently published book "Sex on the Moon" tells the tale of a NASA intern who stole 17 pounds of Apollo moon rocks from Johnson Space Center to impress his girlfriend, and then there's the brouhaha over moon rocks that were given to the state of Alaska but ended up in the possession of a vessel captain who says he fished them out of the trash.

Items that come up for legitimate sale — the occasional spacesuit patch, or wrist-worn checklist, or even a strip of cloth that was torn from a flag before it flew to the moon — can go for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even a well-placed autograph by an Apollo astronaut fetches big bucks  — particularly if that astronaut is Neil Armstrong, who set down on the moon exactly 42 years ago today. Among the top sellers: a page from an Apollo 11 flight plan inscribed by Armstrong ($152,000), and one of Armstrong's signed checks from 1969 ($27,350).

In contrast, autographs from space shuttle astronauts generally go for $10 to $20 on the secondary market, Pearlman said. "Or you can get them for free, if they're still with the program," he said. Just send a request to your favorite astronaut in care of NASA Johnson Space Center, CB/Astronaut Office, Houston, TX 77058, and you'll get an autographed photo in reply.

Here are a few other categories of items that Pearlman recommends for a shuttle-era collection:

Mission patches: It's relatively easy to come by the same types of patches that the astronauts wear. A-B Emblem makes the patches used by NASA as well as the "official" shuttle mission patches offered by many hobby shops and mail-order websites. They generally run $5 per patch. Collecting all 135 isn't out of the question (um, that would be $675 or so). Patches that were actually flown in space (or better yet, worn by the astronauts) are harder to come by and more expensive.

Postal mementos: "For the price of a stamp you can get a memento of the last landing, or still the last launch," Pearlman said. Actually, make that two stamps. You can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Postmaster, NASA Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899, and ask to have the envelope, also known as a cover, hand-canceled and sent back to you with the date of launch or landing. Pearlman said U.S. Postal Service rules allow the postmaster to back-date such cancellations up to 30 days, so you're still in the clear for Atlantis' July 8 launch. To make the memento more special, some folks decorate the envelopes with space-themed artwork, and use spacey stamps like the Mercury stamps issued this year. (But make sure the stamps provide the proper postage.)

Flown items: Bucketfuls of mementos have been flown up on shuttle missions and brought back down to Earth. After the missions, they're kept by the astronauts as souvenirs, or given away to VIPs, museums and schools. Some historically significant items have been flown on behalf of institutions: For the last Hubble servicing mission, the crew brought up a basketball that was used by astronomer Edwin Hubble when he was on the University of Chicago's championship team. Atlantis' mission is no different. "This flight has 22,000 American flags on board," Pearlman said. Such flags do turn up for sale, and "in theory it'd be possible to put together a collection of American flags from each of the 135 missions," he said. An alternative would be to snag one of the 10,000 flags that was flown on the first shuttle mission in 1981, and pair it with one of the thousands being flown on Atlantis to mark the shuttle era's beginning and end.

Mission 'mistakes': Just as flawed stamps and coins go for a premium, "mistaken" mission memorabilia will sometimes be more collectible than your run-of-the-mill shuttle stuff, depending on the rarity of such items. For example, an authentic mission patch for STS-61E, a flight that was canceled due to the 1986 Challenger explosion, can go for hundreds of dollars. Something similar could conceivably happen with memorabilia related to last year's flight of Atlantis, STS-132, which was touted at the time as Atlantis' final flight. Later, NASA decided to add one more flight of Atlantis, meaning that STS-132 is no longer the last. "That's now viewed as a mistake," Pearlman said.

Shuttle parts: Space shuttle tiles have been popular collectibles through the years, Pearlman said, but with the shuttle era winding down, "NASA has made them more and less available at the same time." The space agency has clamped down on distribution of the discarded tiles through surplus sales. The tiles that have been removed from the shuttles during processing are buried in disposal sites — and in fact, a former shuttle worker was arrested in February for rescuing tiles from the trash and selling them. Over the past few months, NASA has been getting rid of thousands of unused tiles and other castoffs by distributing them to museums and educational institutions. If you qualify, you pay a nominal amount for shipping and handling — less than $25 for a tile. But if you're just a collector, you'll have to turn to the secondary market. Just make sure it's legit.

Will shuttle memorabilia ever rank as high as Apollo memorabilia? Not likely. Two of the prime factors behind collectibility are rarity and an artifact's ability to fire the imagination — and it's hard to beat the Apollo moon missions on that score. Less than 40 men went into space during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, including 12 who walked on the moon. In comparison, 355 astronauts flew on 135 shuttle missions to low Earth orbit.

"One hundred and thirty-five missions may scare away collectors, because it was such a large program," Pearlman said.

But when you look beyond the trinkets, it's hard to escape the sense that appreciation of the space shuttle program will grow in time, as Americans reflect on its accomplishments (building the International Space Station and fixing Hubble) rather than its failings (high cost and high risk, including the loss of 14 astronauts).

"There is a shuttle generation that hasn't yet grown old enough to pine for their youth," Pearlman said, "but that will come in; the next 20 or 30 years. The space shuttle will be part of those childhood memories. The program is ending a bit prematurely for that generation. To be honest, it's ending prematurely for any generation. But they say that you should go out at the top ... well, the shuttle certainly seems to be going out at its peak."

How will the shuttle era be remembered? As that era heads into its final day, feel free to reminisce and reflect in the comment space below. 

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