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Tragedy's Other High Price
by Dionne Searcey, Newsday

February 4, 2003 — Minutes after Columbia exploded Saturday, postings popped up on Web sites offering for sale, at highly inflated prices, NASA patches, lapel pins and photos tied to the crew who perished.

Bidding was going strong on eBay yesterday as an official mission patch, emblazoned with the names of the seven-member crew, apparently was selling for as high as $100. Museum shops nationwide have been peddling the same patch for under $10. Nearly every shop is sold out now, but the manufacturer has announced plans to produce more.

This dramatic boost in sales of space souvenirs counts as one of the more peculiar responses to tragedies in NASA's space program. Space retailers financially benefited from the 1986 Challenger disaster as well as the deadly Apollo 1 fire during a simulated launch in 1967.

While NASA has explicitly warned that the sale or confiscation of actual debris from the shuttle is illegal, the agency routinely sanctions the retail marketing of trinkets and other common items, even those that have flown in space.

Regulars in this niche market say people purchase mementos to show support for the crew's families and to feel more connected to national tragedies. U.S. flag sales spiked after Sept. 11 for the same reason, they say.

While some good Samaritans were offering to donate proceeds from the sale of their mementos to a fund for the victims' families, others were charging as much as $51 for a T-shirt.

One such sale on eBay elicited a response from an angry bidder: "ihopeyourfamilydiestoo." Many mainstream retailers also find the price-gouging distasteful.

"I would say there are a few people who have bought from us who are the lowest of the low, scavenger scum of the Earth who are trying to turn a profit," said Dayna Steele Justiz, president of Houston's The Space Store and

Her privately owned store, located across the street from Johnson Space Center in Houston, is selling the same patches offered at outrageous prices on the Internet for $4.95. Customers have placed so many orders that the store closed yesterday to accommodate them all.

The company that manufactures them, A-B Emblems in Weaverville, N.C., was out of stock yesterday but was firing up machines to make thousands more last night.

"It's sad that people think these are limited," said company vice president Andrew Nagle.

Other, more rare types of mementos connected to Columbia will be sold for hundreds of times their face value, a leading space auctioneer predicted.

Based on prior tragedies, autographs of the astronauts who died will be among the most valuable. Mementoes connected directly to the mission will be worth more than mass-produced ones. Artifacts that flew on previous Columbia missions will be prized.

"You have a disaster such as this, and it jogs everybody's awareness. It's unfortunate but a truism," said Michael Orenstein, president of Aurora Galleries International.

Kim Poor, who runs Novaspace Galleries, a space memorabilia shop in Tuscon, Ariz., said he sold out of his paintings of the Challenger after it exploded.

"I couldn't give the damn things away before that," he said.

Poor plans to donate receipts from his unsigned prints of Columbia to a scholarship fund for the victims' children. Still, he conceded that the tragedy would end up being good for business.

"That's the silver lining, you know?" he said. "It gets people talking about space."

The preceding article appeared in Newsday. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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