The final launch of Atlantis and the end of the space shuttle program have created an increased interest in space memorabilia, especially for artifacts from the shuttle era.
No one knows this better than Robert Pearlman, the founder of the website collectSPACE.com, which is considered the online source for space history and artifacts.
"Collectors like to collect in sets and, up till now, the space shuttle's been an open-ended program," Pearlman tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "So collectors sort of stayed wary about getting involved with it. Now there are complete sets. You have 135 missions and 355 astronauts who flew on the space shuttle, and so you know what you need to collect and you can create that checklist to go after."
Topping the list of collectibles are items that have flown on the space shuttle, like flags and mission patches, as well as parts of the shuttle, like the heat shield tiles or parts of the thermal blankets. Pieces of popular culture have also made their way onto shuttle flights, including Luke Skywalker's light saber and a 12-inch-tall Buzz Lightyear action figure. And astronauts have sometimes taken personal items up with them. Among the more unusual items: a chunk of Mount Everest.
When asked what's in his own collection, Pearlman describes one of his weirder pieces: a UCD, or urine collection device. It's the undergarment that the astronauts wear during launch. Pearlman's UCD is, thankfully, unused. But why would anyone want it in his collection?
"We want to relate to what it's like to live in space," says Pearlman. "So if we can find something that relates to our own lives — something that we have done ourselves but maybe in a different way — then I think it's something that's pursued by collectors. It's something you can understand without having a long explanation given."
Memorabilia items range in value; age plays a factor in determining price. Something that flew on one of the Apollo missions is worth at least four figures. Items from the shuttle program have been rising in price.
"About five years ago, you could buy an American flag that flew on the first space shuttle mission — of which there were 10,000 onboard — for about $500," explains Pearlman. "Today, you're lucky if you can find it for less than $1,000."
Above all, though, the items have to be lawfully obtained. Collectors need to make sure that they can trace the chain of ownership to show that an artifact was released by the government through the correct channels.
"NASA and the Office of the Inspector General do not care how much it sells for on the market," says Pearlman. "If it's their property, they're going to come try to get it."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
The end of the space shuttle program has meant a bonanza for space collectors. Robert Pearlman is founder of the website collectSPACE.com. That's the online source for space history and memorabilia. He told me traffic to the site is way up now that the shuttle is being retired.
Mr. ROBERT PEARLMAN (collectSPACE.com): Collectors like to collect in sets, and up till now the space shuttle's been an open-ended program. And so collectors sort of stayed wary about getting involved with it. Now there are complete sets. You have 135 missions and 355 astronauts who flew on the space shuttle, and so you know what you need to collect and you can create that checklist to go after.
KELLY: All right. So what are the really hot items that collectors are looking at right now?
Mr. PEARLMAN: The top of the list is definitely items that flew in space on the space shuttle - flags, mission patches. Every crew designs an emblem to represent their mission and some of those get flown. And then parts of the space shuttle itself. You see parts like their heat shield tiles or parts of their thermal blankets being sold as collectibles.
KELLY: Is there anything, aside from the standard, you know, patches and bits of the shuttle, is there anything kind of weird on there? Any unusual items?
Mr. PEARLMAN: Well, the astronauts are allowed to take some personal items up with them of their choice. And there have been some unusual items taken over the years. There have been pieces of Mount Everest.
There have been collectibles from favorite television shows and movies. Luke Skywalker's light saber flew on the space shuttle. There was a Buzz Lightyear 12-inch action figure that flew on the space shuttle.
Amongst collector items, certainly I get a number of stares when I pull out what is called a UCD. It's a yellow piece of rubber. And UCD stands for urine collection device. And it's the undergarment they wear during launch.
KELLY: Are there are people out there who would actually want to collect this?
Mr. PEARLMAN: I think so. Not used, obviously. But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PEARLMAN: But if it was flown and unused. What it does, I think, is, we want to relate to what it's like to live in space. And so if we can find something that relates to our own lives - something that we have done ourselves but maybe in a different way - then I think it's something that's pursued by collectors. It's something you can understand without having a long explanation given.
KELLY: How much are collectors prepared to spend? I mean, give me a range of how valuable some of these items are.
Mr. PEARLMAN: They range in value. You can find items that flew in space for as little as $50. But there are rising prices. About five years ago you could buy an American flag that flew on the first space shuttle mission - of which there were 10,000 onboard for about $500. Today you're lucky if you can find it for less than $1,000.
It also competes against the earlier memorabilia from the early space program. And those prices have risen over $500,000 and more.
KELLY: Over 500,000 and more. What kind of item would fetch that?
Mr. PEARLMAN: Something that's been to the surface of the moon and has been coated in lunar dust and was obtained legally. Certainly...
(Soundbite of laughter)
KELLY: A key factor. Uh-huh.
Mr. PEARLMAN: Yeah. Key in this, I mean if you're going to collect the artifacts from the program, key to it is making sure that you have the chain of ownership to show that it was released by the government through the proper channels and can be owned legally. Because NASA and the Office of the Inspector General do not care how much it sells on the market. If it's their property, they're going to come try to get it.
KELLY: Thanks very much for talking to us.
Mr. PEARLMAN: Oh, it was my pleasure.
KELLY: That's Robert Pearlman. He's the founder of collectSPACE.com, an online source for space history and artifacts.
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KELLY: And there's photos of some of the more popular collectibles on our website, NPR.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.