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Man accused of stealing Sally Ride's flight suit, other space artifacts

Calvin Dale Smith, right, is accused of stealing NASA property including a training suit worn by Sally Ride, left. (NASA/DPS)
June 9, 2010

— A light blue flight suit worn by Sally Ride as she trained to be the first American woman in space is among several NASA artifacts that Calvin Dale Smith, 56, of Houston has been charged with stealing, according to documents filed by space agency agents in federal court.

In addition to Ride's suit, which includes her name tag and the mission patch for her 1983 historic flight aboard space shuttle Challenger, Smith was indicted by a grand jury for knowingly receiving, concealing and retaining parts from a shuttle airlock, a safety tether assembly, a twice flown in space Omega watch and an astronaut flight jacket, among other items of government property totaling nearly $10,000 in value.

Now in federal custody and with representation by a public defender, Smith pleaded not guilty Thursday, May 27 in a Houston, Texas federal courtroom.

The suit in the suitcase

NASA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) agents were led to the flight suit and the other artifacts by Smith's wife, court papers show.

Smith's wife found and reported the allegedly stolen space equipment in May 2009 as Smith was nearing his release after being jailed for domestic violence involving a firearm.

She was contacted by Smith's mother who was seeking to gather his personal items including a suitcase. Asked to identify which suitcase, Smith's mother reportedly replied, "you know, the suitcase," according to court documents.

Finding the suitcase and examining its contents including the flight suit, Smith's wife told investigators she became suspicious because on visits to Space Center Houston, the visitor center for Johnson Space Center, Smith would laugh when seeing a "replica" of Ride's suit and remarked he knew where the original was. He never specified how he knew, however.

Per his wife, Smith was once employed by Boeing's Flight Processing Group, which at the time maintained astronaut equipment, including their flight suits, for NASA.

Not wanting to be in possession of what she suspected was stolen NASA property, Smith's wife reached out to a friend who in turn contacted the FBI, which then contacted NASA.

Following her original discovery and surrender of the suit in the suitcase, Smith's wife found and reported additional items she believed was NASA property. Among the other items were what the NASA-prepared documents identify as an extended-range crew member (ERCM) safety tether assembly and three airlock parts, which are described as "similar to couplers."

Also recovered was an Omega Speedmaster watch that during a subsequent inquiry with the Swiss watchmaker's own museum was identified by its serial number as having been delivered to NASA in 1978 and used on two shuttle missions.

Smith's wife provided all the suspected stolen property to NASA investigators.

Suits, sales and Sally Ride

According to Smith's family who spoke with Houston CBS affiliate KHOU-TV, Smith had a "long-time crush" on Sally Ride and that's why he allegedly stole her suit. Smith also reportedly tried to sell the suit to the Smithsonian, which rejected his offer.

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum owns and displays the two-piece flight suit that Ride wore on her STS-7 mission onboard Challenger. The jacket and pants are exhibited in the Washington, DC-institution's "Moving Beyond Earth" gallery, which opened late last year.

Sally Ride's space-flown STS-7 two-piece flight suit is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in DC. (collectSPACE)

The "replica" suit that the Smiths saw while touring Space Center Houston is described by its curator, Paul Spana, as a being an authentic training suit of Ride's. As with all shuttle astronauts, Ride was issued multiple flight suits to wear while training.

The one-piece flight suit that Ride wore while in orbit may never be identified. It is not listed as in the Smithsonian's collection nor does NASA identify it among its inventory.

According to Louis Parker, exhibits manager for Johnson Space Center, the company which took over the astronaut equipment contract from Boeing, United Space Alliance, released many of the same-era flight suits to museums several years ago but before doing so, removed all the identification labels such that the suits could not be traced back to specific astronauts or missions.

The suit that Smith allegedly stole is described as having its tags and patches still attached, which allowed for its identification as one of Sally Ride's training suits.

Court documents show that a trial date for Smith has been set for July 12. If convicted, he faces a $250,000 fine and up to ten years in federal prison.

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