History

Natural Born Collectors

Even NASA's own can't resist the urge.

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Amid stern warnings from NASA that wreckage from space shuttle Columbia may be radioactive comes news of the inevitable: A student at Douglass School, in west Nacogdoches County, licked a piece of debris on a dare.

The incident was recounted in one of many stories reporting civilian interaction with ship shrapnel scattered over California, Texas, and Louisiana. Seems that some locals are heeding neither the (bogus-sounding) health warnings nor the reminders from local sheriffs and NASA officials that the debris is federal property and desperately needed to investigate what tragic detail caused Columbia to disintegrate 200,000 feet up.

Civilians have stolen more than 100 pieces of debris, reports Reuters. In Nacogdoches, an area of heavy debris, phones have been "ringing off the hook" since the sheriff's office offered amnesty from federal prosecution to anyone who returns scraps that may have "wandered" into their treasure chests.

The news has caused an editorial writer for the LaPorte, IN, Herald-Argus to slip into full-blown first grade-teacher mode, scolding, "What part of 'don't touch' and 'don't go near' do some people not understand?" Those looking for shuttle souvenirs possess a "mentality so unbecoming to America, yet so indicative of our money-oriented makeup."

Is the desire to possess these objects really so unbecoming? In a specific sense, yes: The debris is essential evidence in Nasa's ongoing crash investigation, making the looting a selfish and potentially harmful obstruction. However, that doesn't tell us anything about the looters' motivations. "Remains of the astronauts should be considered a memorial, something sacred," the unsigned Herald-Argus editorial instructs, "not something to be handled and bragged about." But why on Earth should we assume that for most collectors, the latter is any more likely a motivation than the former?

Moreover, the most famous collector of space trinkets wasn't some yokel in Nacogdoches, but one of NASA's own: Gus Grissom, the second U.S. astronaut in space, whose Liberty Bell 7 capsule famously sank into the Atlantic Ocean after the hatch blew early.

As Tom Wolfe recounts in The Right Stuff, his exquisitely macho history of the early space program, astronaut Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom couldn't resist the urge to take a pocket full of space history home to the kiddies. Grissom boarded his space capsule in 1961 with pockets stuffed full of soon-to-be collectors items: two rolls of fifty dimes, some small models of the capsule, and two sets of pilot's wings.

According to Wolfe's controversial account, a panicking Grissom "screwed the pooch" while reaching for memorabilia that had fallen to the capsule floor. He accidentally blew the spacecraft's hatch, flooding the capsule and nearly sinking him with it. In NASA's (and ultimately Grissom's) official account, the hatch blew for no reason at all, an electrical fluke. But even in this version, Grissom expressed regret about all those shameful trinkets, saying their weight nearly drowned him as he awaited rescue.

So becoming or not, the human desire to own a piece of space history seems Strong—so strong that even a man who got to live the experience couldn't resist. The specific reasons for that desire—to honor, to mourn, to brag, to sell on E-bay—are probably as diverse as the individuals who experience it.