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John Young brought a corned beef sandwich. Gus Grissom carried some dimes. Alan Shepard took along golf balls. And then there were the 159-year-old socks...

by Frank Kuznik


Two years ago Gene Roddenberry finally made it into space, when he was blasted into orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia in October 1992. It was fitting that Roddenberry, the creator of TV's "Star Trek," should make a space voyage of his own. The one drawback: he was dead. Only a small vial of his ashes actually made the journey.

When Roddenberry's mission was disclosed, even NASA insiders were surprised. The space agency has strict rules about nonessential cargo, and they are rarely bent for sentiment or entertainment. According to NASA spokesman Ed Campion, it took administrator Dan Goldin to give final approval for Roddenberry's flight, after Roddenberry's widow, Majel Barrett (who played Nurse Chapel on the original series), had spent a year lobbying for it. "After a lot of maneuvering and a lot of talking and a lot of everything, all I kept getting was 'No, we can't do it,' " Barrett says. "Then one day out of the clear blue sky I got a telephone call saying, 'They'll take it up on the next flight.'"

The event would probably still be a secret had Barrett not badgered Goldin into letting her talk about it. "They brought me to Washington and gave me a plaque with Gene's ashes and everything, but asked me not to say anything because somebody in Congress might get upset," she says. "Finally, when I was scheduled to speak at the Space Congress [in May 1994], I called Dan and said, 'Isn't it time now?' He said, 'Well, go ahead and break it, but do it quietly.'"

Spokesperson Campion is quick to point out that Roddenberry's posthumous flight was an "extremely unique and special event" and that similar requests will not be considered. NASA's reticence about the flight is understandable: a trip into space acts like a modern-day philosopher's stone, transforming even the most mundane object into something rare and special. In the past, the agency has exploited this phenomenon by flying objects of historic interest, or memorabilia for employees and politicians. In the marketplace, a spaceflight can almost literally turn an object into gold: the price tag for space collectibles is often in the thousands. While Roddenberry's remains aren't likely to be put up for sale, the specter of the space program being used for commercial gain is one that still haunts NASA.

"Flown items are the Holy Grail of the space collectibles market," says Bill Miller, chairman of Odyssey Group, Inc. of Corona, California. "Whether it's a pocketknife or a urine collection device or flags or stamp covers, the ultimate space collectible is one that has flown with an astronaut on a particular mission." An auction Odyssey held last February included such paraphernalia as a Hasselblad camera flown aboard Wally Schirra's Mercury mission, a tie tack and sunglasses flown on Apollo 7, one of the dimes Gus Grissom carried on his Mercury flight, and a wealth of flags, patches, medallions, and personal items such as watches and pens from Gemini and Apollo flights. Among the items sold at an auction run by Superior Auction Galleries of Beverly Hills in June were stamp covers flown on Apollo 11, a pair of gold earrings flown on Apollo 12, and state and foreign flags flown on Apollo 16. The Apollo 11 stamp covers--each autographed by all three crew members--sold for $27,000.

The demand for space memorabilia drops steeply beginning with the shuttle flights, partly because so many objects have flown aboard the shuttle and partly because the glamour is missing. "Up through Apollo, you can pretty much name most of the astronauts, who were like the old-time cowboys," says Miller. "After that, interest drops off in the space program in general."

NASA has also tightened its regulations on what items it will allow in space. Today, the bulk of what goes along in the Official Flight Kit (OFK) and astronauts' Personal Preference Kits (PPK) tends to be fairly predictable--patches, flags, decals, pins and other jewelry, pennants, and commemorative medallions. NASA uses the patches and flags, which are flown by the hundreds, as mementos for conscientious employees and contractors, and as gifts to members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, and other officials.

"We call them presentos," says Robert Parker, a former astronaut who is now NASA director of space operations utilization. "They're usually mounted on a plaque and given to some senator or representative or governor back home when you go to visit them." NASA has literally thousands of flown four- by six-inch state, foreign, and U.S. flags stockpiled and ready to roll. The large numbers of such mementos also keep demand--and potential prices--down.

The rules regarding memorabilia on flights now run nine pages of stiff legalese. Each astronaut is limited to 20 items in his or her PPK, with a maximum total weight of a pound and a half. Moreover, astronauts must sign an agreement stating that they will fly only the items they include in their PPKs, and that none of them will be sold or used for commercial purposes. This restricts what most can take to "the usual trash and trinkets for relatives," in the words of one former astronaut. Indeed, if anything stands out on the PPK lists--which must be submitted for approval 60 days prior to launch--it's the scarcity of personal mementos. Astronauts typically fly jewelry and other small keepsakes not for themselves but for their spouses, children, parents, close relatives, and friends. Says Kathryn Sullivan, a veteran of three shuttle flights, "Those slots are an allowance to offer a memento as a nice gesture to the family and friends who have done a hell of a lot of keeping you patched together while you're working hard to become an astronaut."

In the early days, when astronauts would often carry items like hand-lettered signs with them ("Beat Army" and "Beat Navy" were favorites), the rules governing what could be taken into space were relatively loose. "You had to make a list, so that [astronaut office chief] Deke Slayton and everybody could have it," says Al Bean, who joined the program in 1963. "But as long as it didn't get too heavy, you could carry lots of stuff. It wasn't a big deal." In fact, Bean is still waiting for someone to claim several religious relics he took on Apollo 12. "I took things for so many different people, when I got home I mostly didn't know who they were for," Bean says. "So I still have three tiny gold crosses, two small Pope Paul VI medals, and one Holy Bible on microfilm that belong to somebody who has never asked me for them."

Gus Grissom brought some dimes along with him on the second manned Mercury flight. "I had brought along two rolls of 50 dimes each to give to the children of friends, three one-dollar bills, some small models of the capsule and two sets of pilot's wings," Grissom later wrote in an account of his flight and his near-drowning after splashdown. "These were all adding weight that I could have done without." Several of the dimes are now on display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida.

On the Gemini 3 spacecraft, John Young brought a corned beef sandwich, offering it to a surprised Grissom after he complained about being hungry. But the real culprit was Wally Schirra. "I catered that," Schirra admits with a laugh. "I got the sandwich at Wolfie's, a deli near the Cape, the day before. It was refrigerated all night so it was perfectly safe; we ate that food all the time." Still NASA was hammered about the unauthorized sandwich in subsequent appropriations hearings, during which one congressman called it "disgusting."

On the Apollo 14 mission to the moon, Alan Shepard had official clearance to take a couple of golf balls and the head of a six-iron, which he attached to a geology tool handle for some quick lunar golf. The enduring controversy is over the distance he attained. By his own admission, his first shot got "more dirt than ball." The second appeared to go a couple of hundred yards, but Shepard yelled, "There it goes! Miles and miles and miles!"

Things got more serious after the next Apollo mission, when Dave Scott, Al Worden, and the late Jim Irwin took 400 unauthorized first-day stamp covers with them to the moon. Those were not the first stamps to fly, nor the last; thousands have since been taken along for the Postal Service on shuttle flights. The difference was, the stamps from Apollo 15 were sold, violating a then unwritten prohibition against turning a profit on flown memorabilia.

"The guys were approached by a German in the philatelic business who made a deal with them to fly the envelopes, with the understanding that they wouldn't be sold until the Apollo program was over," says Irwin's widow Maryellen. "The money was to go for our children's education. But within weeks of the flight he welshed on the deal and began to release them."

None of the three men flew again. NASA confiscated the envelopes but was later forced to return them after Worden filed suit. Scott, for one, still professes to be puzzled by the furor they caused. "People had been taking along all sorts of things," he says. "The envelopes were sitting in the crew room when we went out for the launch, in full view of everybody. In fact, the astronaut office had them vacuum-packed and sealed. The people who were supposed to log them in just missed them."

Some of the covers have begun to appear on the market. Irwin left 25 to High Flight, the ministry he founded, which in turn has sold some to the German dealer. Maryellen Irwin says the dealer resold one recently for $10,000. "It's pretty amazing," she says of the boom in space collectibles. "At the last auction they bought Jim's passport, his military ID, and some things that were just standard NASA issue, like his toothbrush and spoons. What really surprised me was when the auction house asked if I had any of Jim's canceled checks, because they have his autograph."

"I was quite surprised at the level of enthusiasm for some of that stuff," says Schirra. "Different things that the Smithsonian didn't want--like the Randle knife that I flew on Mercury, which had sat on a shelf for years, and some extra medallions I had, and a lot of autographed material that they get excited about."

Occasionally NASA will go beyond pins and flags, as Joe Allen discovered after a flight aboard Columbia. "Just by coincidence, I learned that a pair of spurs owned by President Reagan were carried on the flight," Allen says. "I happened to be in the presence of the NASA administrator who presented them. I remember it because, number one, I thought it was a rather odd item to have aboard a spaceship. And number two, in presenting them, the administrator said, 'Mr. President, here are your spurs, which flew aboard STS-7 with the famous American astronaut Dr. Sally Ride.' I thought that was funny, because the commander of that flight, Rick Hauck, was standing right beside me, and his name wasn't even mentioned. I looked at Rick and he looked back at me and sort of shrugged his shoulders, like 'Well, that's show business.'"

All manner of historical memorabilia have also gone along on spaceflights to create a symbolic melding of past and future. A piece of fabric from the Wright brothers' original Flyer flew aboard Apollo 11, an astrolabe--an astronomical device built in Persia in the 17th century--flew with Bob Parker aboard Columbia in 1983, and a wooden fragment of the sternpost from Captain James Cook's Endeavour was carried in the Apollo 15 lunar module of the same name. When Kathryn Sullivan, who had been an exchange student at the University of Bergen in Norway, flew aboard Challenger in 1984, she brought along a marked stick apparently used to log traffic in the port of Bergen a thousand years ago.

On his spaceflight in 1990, mission specialist and Cornell University alumnus G. David Low took along a pair of tan silk socks worn by university founder Ezra Cornell on his wedding day in 1831. Story Musgrave flew a small piece of Stonehenge, loaned to him by a British curator, aboard the shuttle, and Ed Mitchell flew the four-star insignia of General Omar Bradley aboard Apollo 14. And Dan Brandenstein took along a doorknob from the state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, on a shuttle flight. "They were restoring the building, and the governor, Anthony Earl, asked me to fly one of the original brass doorknobs," Brandenstein says. "It was sort of oblong with engravings on it, very ornate."

And what became of the doorknob after he gave it back? "I personally don't have a clue."

An entire book could probably be filled with lists of items that NASA has refused to fly. "A guy selling automobiles in Atlanta wanted to fly a package of his business cards to give out to his customers," remembers Henry Clements, former associate director of Johnson Space Center. "Business cards were a popular item--we would get that kind of thing all the time. But anytime we could see a commercial purpose, that never happened."

Until the unlikely event that NASA changes its policy, space memorabilia collectors will have to content themselves with what becomes available on the auction circuit. For the more adventurous, there's at least one item just waiting to be picked up. On Apollo 16, John Young was carrying a tie tack for Dotty Duke, who intended to surprise her astronaut husband Charlie with it when he got back. But Young lost it. "It was in John's pocket and somehow fell out," Charlie Duke says. "So it's up there on the moon somewhere." Any truly devoted collector can find it someplace in the Descartes highlands.

Originally published in Air & Space/Smithsonian Magazine, Dec 94/Jan 95. Copyright 1994, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.

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