: November 2, 1999, 1:45 p.m. EST — Now that eBay has ended the auction early (according to MSNBC "for listing violations"), it appears that the seller is trying to claim ignorance of violating federal law. In a response to email requests from reporters, the seller, identified only as "Chuck," has sent similar if not identical replies.
"I had no idea it was illegal to posses or sell this item, and would gladly return [it] to proper authorities," he wrote in one email to SpaceViews.
: November 1, 1999, 11:35 p.m. EST — It now appears the auction has been ended by eBay.
Attempts to access the lot's description returns "The item you requested (190410340) is invalid or no longer in our database."
A quick search of the auction website's listings indicates that only this auction was halted; the seller's account and his other lots were not suspended.
According to information shared by NASAWatch.com, the delay removing the "heatshield" from the site was "due to a combination of playing telephone tag with NASA (so as to understand their concerns) and technical problems at eBay."
Remaining to be answered is whether the space agency will take actions to recover the tile and/or prosecute the owner/seller.
Prior to the auction ending, collectSPACE was told that NASA has agents assigned to monitor the internet looking for items such as Challenger debris.
: November 1, 1999, 10:00 p.m. EST– Since first reporting about the auction, the following has transpired:
- eBay: According to interviews conducted with both MSNBC and Florida Today reporters, eBay officials are aware of the possible illegality of the sale, but will not take action until contacted by authorities.
- NASA: Based on an interview with MSNBC, NASA is also aware of the alleged "heatshield" sale and is investigating. Spokeswoman Kirsten Williams told MSNBC that if authentic, the space agency would "pursue the return of the tile."
- Coast Guard: MSNBC's Alan Boyle also contacted Coast Guard Lt. Ron LaBrec who confirmed that it was a Coast Guard vessel that reached the debris site first and expressed concern if "there's a Coast Guard person, or maybe an ex-Coast Guard person who would essentially remove government property from the scene of an accident and withhold it from an investigation such as the Challenger disaster."
Four days after the auction opened and nearly a day after it was first reported, the heat shield tile remains available for sale. Six bids have been placed to date, raising the lot to $331.
The auction is scheduled to end at 1:24:14 a.m. EST on November 8, 1999.
November 1, 1999
— In an apparent violation of federal law, a piece of a heat shield tile allegedly recovered from the debris from the space shuttle Challenger has been put up for sale on a popular online auction site. The thermal protection tile was reportedly "pulled from the water of the Atlantic Ocean" on Jan. 28, 1986.
The tile was posted to eBay approximately three days ago on Oct. 28. Based on the lot's description, the Ohio-based seller was aboard the first U.S. Coast Guard ship to arrive at the scene after the tragic loss of the shuttle. Identified only by his email address, the seller bills the 6 by 6 by 2.5 inch "black heat shield" as the "ultimate Christmas gift for the space enthusiast or collector."
"I wouldn't be selling [this] but have found myself in a bit of financial distress." the seller claims in his listing.
Included with the tile are 40 pictures taken by the seller of the recovery efforts and "a copy of the letter [he] received from the Coast Guard Commander awarding [his crew and he] the 'Coast Guard Unit Commendation' Award for [their] part in the recovery."
The heatshield fragment was listed with a minimum bid of $199.99 with an additional hidden reserve price. Two bids had been placed at the time that this article was published (the reserve has yet to be met).
Federal law prohibits private ownership of debris from the space shuttle Challenger wreckage. Violation of the law is subject to a maximum $10,000 fine, 10 years in prison or a combination of both. Whether the seller is aware of this regulation was not clear.
This is not, however, the first time eBay's services have been used to sell debris from the fallen orbiter. A different seller used the auction site to offer an alleged "authentic Challenger O-ring" in January.
That auction was halted by eBay officials shortly after a story appeared on a NASA watchdog website alerting the company to the unlawful status of the sale. Although an eBay spokesperson issued a statement indicating that the website would comply with law enforcement or the space agency, it is unknown if any actions were pursued against the seller.
No apparent actions by eBay or NASA have been taken to investigate or end the current auction. If left unchecked, the auction will end on November 7.
Although eBay prohibits the sale of unlawful items, it does not actively monitor individual listings. Instead the auction site relies on its users to alert them of possible violations.
If the heatshield is indeed authentic it is subject to seizure by NASA. If the item is found not to be from Challenger, the seller could still face charges for fraud.
Seventy-three seconds after lifting off for orbit, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart, claiming the lives of seven crewmembers, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe. After tracing the cause of the failure, the debris recovered from the wreckage was buried in underground missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Most of the orbiter is still unrecovered on the ocean floor.