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."