NASA’s Trash is Some People’s Treasure3 min read

From the early days of spaceflight, humankind’s daring ventures beyond Earth’s atmosphere have been a source of wonderment to many. And, like all major historical endeavors, they have spawned a community of people dedicated to collecting memorabilia from them. Some of it is the staid and dignified kind of thing that is similar to war paraphernalia: Mission patches, signed photographs, and other space program-approved surplus items. But since every collector wants a truly unique item, or several, to boast about, there are also some very unusual space artifacts that have wound up in the hands of private collectors.

The Monkey-Mobile

It’s a well-known piece of NASA lore that the person who preceded the Mercury astronauts into orbit wasn’t actually human–it was Ham the chimpanzee, a Project Mercury test subject from when the space agency wasn’t willing to risk a human being but settled for the next best thing. It so happens that Ham and the other test-apes were transported from their homes to the launch pad via the catchily misnamed Monkey-Mobile, a kind of four-wheeled rover. Somehow this hominid transporter wound up in the hands of one Charles Bell, and was sold for $4000 after his death in 2000.

Jim Irwin’s Dusty Patch

The most sought-after type of space memorabilia can’t legally be bought or sold. Dust and rocks from the moon would look good on anyone’s mantelpiece, of course, but they’re considered worldwide cultural and scientific treasures and can’t be in the hands of private collectors. Unless, of course, one finds a loophole: In 1999, Christie’s New York sold a mission patch from lunar rover driver James Irwin’s spacesuit. Since Irwin was kicking up plenty of dirt driving around the moon’s surface, a bit of dust inevitably got onto the patch. In other words, some dirty old cloth commanded $300,000 at the auction simply because the grime on it was from someplace extraordinary.

Bread… From… SPAAAAAACE!

Astronauts have to eat, of course, and not everything they put in their pieholes in orbit is freeze-dried stuff from hermetically sealed packets. The Apollo 11 astronauts were known to have taken cubes of toasted bread–croutons, basically, for, uh… space salad, one might guess–and some of those croutons are known to have survived. Appraiser Gary Piattoni estimates that a bag of Apollo bread signed by the astronauts themselves might go for $25,000.

Russian Proton Boosters

The best things in life can’t be bought with money. One of the Beatitudes goes “Blessed are the random Midwestern farmers, for they will have high-powered Russian rocket parts fall on them.” Or I may be misremembering, but the point is Kansas farmer Craig Rixon saw a fiery flash in the sky in 2012 and then days later found some blackened shards of ominous-looking metal near a fence. Astronomy teacher Doug Wereb was able to identify them as part of the fourth stage of a Russian proton rocket, a sentence that probably sounded way scarier during the Cold War than it does today (and it still sounds pretty freaking scary).


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