Note to collectors: Challenger off limits|
January 26, 2001 — Charles Starowesky was on-board the USS Aubrey Fitch off the coast of Florida on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into flight.
Deployed by the U.S. Coast Guard, Starowesky and his fellow guardsmen were the first to arrive at the waters below the plume in the sky. The Aubrey Fitch, soon to be joined by eight other Navy and Coast Guard vessels was tasked with recovering the wreckage — evidence for the forthcoming investigation into what eventually was known to have claimed the lives of seven American astronauts.
It would be weeks before the cause of the accident was determined and every piece of the vehicle pulled out of the water was essential. Both the NASA and the Coast Guard had issued pleas to the public to report finding any remnant. NASA ordered that all the material collected be stored inside a hangar at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.
This included the 6 by 6 by 2.5-inch piece of thermal tile that Starowesky had successfully fished from the ocean with a bucket and kept for himself.
The "ultimate" Christmas gift
Thirteen years later, Starowesky posted his Challenger "souvenir" to the internet auction site eBay with hopes of cashing in on his morbid memorabilia.
"I wouldn't be selling but have found myself in a bit of financial distress," Starowesky wrote in his description published on eBay.
Set at a minimum bid of $199, Starowesky offered the tile, along with 40 pictures he took during the recovery efforts. He also offered to include a copy of the letter he received from the Coast Guard commander awarding him and his crew the Coast Guard Unit Commendation Award for helping with the recovery effort.
Starowesky described the offering as the "ultimate Christmas gift for the space enthusiast or collector."
Title 18, United States Code, Section 641
Ultimately, 15 tons of debris from shuttle Challenger was recovered. The remainder — 55 percent of the orbiter, 5 percent of its crew cabin and 65 percent of its payload — still rests on the ocean floor.
During the investigation it was discovered that the black thermal tiles, much like the type Starowesky pocketed, provided very important clues. As each was serialized, NASA was able to identify tiles nearest to the suspected hot gas leak from the right solid rocket booster.
Whether Starowesky's personal piece would have helped is unknown. With the investigation over and the cause now known, the government's concern over Challenger is now more out of respect for the lost crew.
As NASA never relinquished ownership, possession of Challenger debris is a simple case of theft of government property. All parts recovered today are interred with the original wreckage in two abandoned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
After being alerted to the auction, the NASA Office of the Inspector General demanded the tile's return.
Though Starowesky claimed ignorance — "I had no idea it was illegal to possess or sell this item, and would gladly return [it] to proper authorities," he claimed at the time of his attempted sale — he plead guilty in a U.S. District Court on August 22, 2000. The former guardsman was charged with violating Title 18, U.S. Code Section 641 (theft of government property) almost one year after listing the tile on eBay.
Sentenced to a two-year probation, Starowesky could have received a steeper penalty — a maximum $10,000 fine, 10 years in prison or a combination of both.
Starowesky not alone
With the rise of online auction sites (such as eBay) the marketplace for memorabilia connected to tragedies has expanded. Recent interest in items such as the Titanic and Nazi war memorabilia has brought more Challenger wreckage in private hands to the surface.
While Starowesky's case was the most recent to be reported, NASA has pursued other recovered fragments.
Another seller listed what he described as an "authentic Challenger O-ring" in January 1999. That auction was halted by the auction website shortly after being alerted that the item, real or not, was illegal to sell.
Those currently in possession of Challenger material are urged to contact the NASA Office of the Inspector General to arrange return of the debris.
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