August 23, 2000
– Charles Starowesky of Somerset, Ohio pled guilty Tuesday (Aug. 22) in a U.S. District Court after attempting to sell a small piece of the wreckage from the space shuttle Challenger.
As was first reported
by collectSPACE.com, Starowesky posted the 6 by 6 by 2.5" thermal tile on Oct. 28, 1999 to the auction website eBay. In his description, Starowesky explained he had "pulled [the fragment] from the water of the Atlantic Ocean" as a member of the first U.S. Coast Guard team to respond to the scene. He wrote that it was the "ultimate Christmas gift for the space enthusiast."
After four days of accepting bids to a total of $331 and receiving national media coverage, the auction was ended by eBay officials at NASA's request. The space agency then launched an investigation into the auction through the Office of Inspector General.
Soon after the sale was halted, Starowesky — who only identified himself as "Chuck" — replied to media inquiries claiming an ignorance of the law. An e-mail to the space news website SpaceViews claimed: "I had no idea it was illegal to posses or sell this item, and would gladly return [it] to proper authorities."
Almost 10 months later, Starowesky stood before Judge John D. Holshuh facing one count of possession of U.S. Government property, with the intent to convert it to his own use. Pleading guilty to violating Title 18, Section 641 of the U.S. Code, Theft of Government Property, he was sentenced to two years probation.
According to NASA's Office of Inspector General "at the time of the Challenger Space Shuttle recovery effort, all of the [debris] was to be retrieved and returned to a NASA hangar for use in reconstructing the Challenger." After the cause of the explosion was determined, the recovered debris was interred in two underground missile silos at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.