From the beginning of the space program, collecting space memorabilia has been a popular hobby. Astronaut Gus Grissom carried along rolls of coins on the second Mercury flight, because he knew they would be of value to collectors.
Even today, the space shuttle carries large numbers of keepsakes aloft, to be given to people who worked on the project and other honored recipients. But things can be taken to extreme, with unhappy results.
If you were to combine all the ethics of investing in stolen art, the greed that makes con artists successful and every speck of good taste involved in grave robbing, you would find a new fad among collectors: relics from the doomed space shuttle Challenger.
"There's material from Challenger out there," says a NASA investigator, one of many involved in tracking down debris from the shuttle disaster. "Over time, it will probably become quite valuable to collectors of stuff like that. You wouldn't believe some of these collectors.
"Personally, it makes me sick."
For those who seek to buy, sell or merely keep such "souvenirs," the penalties are greater than mere charges of supremely bad taste.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been very sensitive about parts from the Challenger. No matter who or what is to blame for the disaster that January morning in 1986, NASA has sought to relegate the incident to the pages of history.
Part of that campaign has been to insist that it still owns all parts of the shuttle, even those abandoned at sea.
The whereabouts of large parts of the craft are known to NASA, though the space agency has decided not to retrieve them, but the agency says that it retains ownership and that anyone taking any part of the ship is guilty, at minimum, of theft.
The agency deals severely with such persons.
A federal agent pointed to one such case. A scallop dredge operating in the waters off Cape Canaveral came up with a packet of Challenger patches, of the type sewn to clothing, when it brought in its haul of scallops. The packet, containing 25 patches, had been aboard the Challenger to be distributed later as souvenirs.
The incident came to NASA's attention when a local man sought to sell one of the patches for $20,000. A sting operation was arranged, and the man was arrested.
It took federal agents weeks to track down the rest of the patches.
What surprised the agent was not that someone was offering to sell Challenger debris for $20,000, but that the item turned out to be genuine.
"Usually, it's phony," he says. "Someone will buy items at the Kennedy Space Center gift shop, bury them in the sand for a while and then sell them as Challenger relics. From what we've been able to determine, the prices are usually very high."
In one case, someone had taken ordinary ceramic tiles, mounted them in frames and sold them as the heat-shield tiles from the spacecraft.
"Most victims of con men have larceny in their hearts," the agent said. "This is a perfect situation for the swindlers to operate, because the only way to determine if it's genuine is through us, and we'll take it away from you."
Vacationers to this day find bits of Challenger debris washed up on nearby beaches. The ones who don't want to tangle with NASA security people are quick to turn in such items.
Those who keep the "souvenirs" are likely to tell the folks back home about it, and sooner or later word gets back to the authorities. An early morning visit from the FBI is a real eye opener to those tourists.
In one instance, a military man involved in recovery efforts bragged at a Florida bar about having taken items from the debris. Word filtered back and the fellow was court-martailed, but the items were never recovered.
"Those things will pop up from time to time," says an agent. "We don't know everything that was recovered, so there's no way to be sure when we've got it all.
"But we have no plans to stop looking. Any time something like this comes to our attention, we're going after it."