By Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY
The day after the space shuttle Atlantis launched on its final journey, space memorabilia collectors flooded the website of Goldberg's Auctions in Los Angeles for a shot at nabbing a piece of NASA history.
"It's the end of an era," says CEO Ira Goldberg . "These items will become historical treasure pieces."
Since the dawn of the space program in the 1950s , collectors have longed for a physical connection to the cosmos, from astronaut autographs to moon rocks. Now space shuttle relics are surging in price and popularity as NASA's 30-year-old space shuttle program ends with the landing of Atlantis, scheduled for Thursday at Kennedy Space Center.
Goldberg estimates that 1,500 bidders, some from as far away as Singapore and Hong Kong, participated in the auction on the website and seven phone lines and in the auction house itself - more than any previous space auction. Tokens from the space shuttle's first and last missions sparked the most intense interest, Goldberg says.
"It was just overwhelming. We had much more activity, hundreds of buyers from all over the world," says Michael Orenstein, Goldberg's director of space memorabilia.
Gift shop items, such as patches, pins and T-shirts made for the commercial market, have no collectible value. Serious collectors scoop up items that have unique historical value, Orenstein says.
The checklist for a launch pad director who strapped the astronauts in for STS-51L, the Challenger flight that broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard, sold for $1,947 , he says.
"You have to get absorbed in the history. This was held in the hand of a man who did something you will never do," Orenstein says. "He was there. This is first-person material. It's fascinating when you stop to think about it."
In the last five years, one of 10,000 American flags flown on the first space shuttle flight sold for about $500, says collector Robert Pearlman, founder of CollectSPACE.com. Now such a flag would fetch over $1,000 now, he says. Pearlman expects the high interest to continue, driven by nostalgia and publicity as the shuttle program ends.
Pearlman started CollectSPACE initially as a programming playground to try different web designs, catalog his own collection and write about space history. In the first month, 30 people visited the site. Now, 250,000 people visit each month to get the skinny on space auctions, discuss their latest acquisitions and read about intricacies of space exploration.
Space collectors "didn't have a community. We didn't have an online meeting place," before CollectSPACE, Pearlman says. "Collectors become experts. They are very passionate about it."
Ken Havekotte, 56, runs SpaceCoast Cover Service on Merritt Island, Fla., which has produced commemorative envelopes since 1983 for the space shuttle missions. He also deals in other collectibles, including rare patches, hardware and autographs.
Lately, interest in shuttle collectibles has surged, he says. Collectors want to complete their sets of patches and pins for all 135 space shuttle flights. "Now we have a start and a finish," Havekotte says.
Yet even with renewed interest in the shuttle missions, memorabilia from Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon, remains the hottest commodity. In last week's auction, fabric scraps - leftovers that remained on Earth - of the historic flag planted on the moon sold for $45,000, Goldberg says.
"The holy grail of the hobby will always be items that went to the moon's surface. Only 12 men have walked on the moon's surface. They didn't have a lot of room to take things back with them," Havekotte says.
Havekotte, who grew up on the Space Coast near the Kennedy Space Center, admired the daring feats of early astronauts Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn. He prizes early rocket history.
"They were such historical feats. I was just captivated by that," Havekotte says. "I have not missed a manned space shot since the early Apollo days."
Any items that have flown in space always fetch a premium, Pearlman says.
"It runs the gamut from $50 to $500,000 for something that's been on the surface of the moon and picked up space dust and is 100% legal," Pearlman says.
On April 12, the Soviet Vostok 3KA-2 space capsule sent into orbit with a dog and a life-size dummy three weeks before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space sold for $2.9 million at a Sotheby's auction.
Among Pearlman's prized possessions is a 4-by-4-foot, 200-pound aircraft-grade milled aluminum hatch - one of 40 made for the International Space Station- that sits in his Houston living room. Of the 40 hatches made for the space station at the time, 38 are in space."I fell in love with flown hardware, not mementos," Pearlman said.
Pearlman says his own collection is "gravitating toward the space shuttle. I came to the realization that the space shuttle has been the program of my lifetime."
His collection of 300 to 400 items includes a space shuttle tile, a thruster from a Gemini spacecraft and most unusually, a package of bread cubes that flew on Apollo 11, the lunar landing mission, as astronaut Michael Collins' food rations.
He found the bread cubes on eBay. A seller who was listing a commemorative medallion issued by a NASA contractor for $100 said he'd throw in the croutons to sweeten the deal. The bread cubes are worth thousands of dollars, Pearlman says.
Despite his luck, Pearlman cautions new collectors to avoid such sales, which are rife with forgeries and items of murky provenance.
"There are always traps for new collectors. The biggest pitfalls come when they are impatient," Pearlman says.
"There are no bargains to be had. There are things you can stumble into, but that comes when you know what you're looking for. This is collecting history. Each piece tells a story, and if you spend some time learning and researching, you'll be richer for it."