Shuttle-Era Shopping Spree

Posted on Thu, February 11, 2010
Space shuttle Discovery approaches International Space Station during STS-120 mission.

Space shuttle Discovery approaches International Space Station during STS-120 mission. 

Being snowbound at home for a long weekend presented a perfect opportunity to go shopping online – for Space Shuttle artifacts! A few days ago, NASA announced the second round of surplus property to be released from the Shuttle program when it ends later this year. Interested museums and educational institutions are eligible to browse a NASA-GSA website and request items for their collections and exhibits. The objects are free to a good home, but there will be shipping and handling charges. In the first round announced last fall, the Museum snagged several items on our wish list. As Space Shuttle curator, I am coordinating the National Air and Space Museum’s collecting effort with several colleagues in the space history division primarily, though some items also draw the attention of colleagues in the aeronautics and archives divisions. Together we are seeking Shuttle-era artifacts that inform the intellectual basis of the national collection or match the long-established categories of objects within the collection. We are the Museum’s “personal shoppers.” What is the intellectual foundation for the space history collection? As historians, we are engaged in an ongoing effort to understand the meaning of spaceflight in American history and culture, the technologies and institutions and people that make it possible, the successes and failures, and even the mundane routines of living and working in space. We seek material objects that enable us to document, display, and preserve our nation’s human spaceflight experience and to explore its significance in our research and exhibitions.


Already part of the National Collection: a Star Tracker that flew on 16 Space Shuttle missions, including Columbia's maiden voyage, and space food (scrambled eggs) that flew on STS-27. Just some examples of the types of Shuttle-era objects the Museum collects.

Our collections are organized in categories, rather like the biologists’ class-genus-species taxonomy.  We have broad programmatic categories (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Shuttle, Space Station) and broad technical categories (crew equipment, rockets, spacecraft, etc.)  Specific artifacts are organized into such pigeonholes as avionics, clothing, computers, food, spacesuits, and tools. So what was I shopping for online?  The conveniently alphabetized list of 653 object types started with Accelerometers and 13 long pages later ended with Wing Leading Edge batteries, with scores of sensors and transducers in between – the kind of stuff one might expect to see on a warehouse shelf but not in an exhibit.  But scrolling on, I spotted some real treasures, most of them flown in space:

  • a cycle-ergometer for crew exercise
  • an in-flight maintenance kit of 147 tools
  • some computers and camera equipment
  • parts of an extravehicular activity spacesuit (no complete suits are being released)
  • an Apollo 8 audio tape – wonder what that’s all about!
  • even a Shuttle emesis bag (to add to our impressive collection of airline barf bags)

Most of these items illuminate the realities of living and working in space. I spent more time on this online “window shopping” than I’ve ever spent browsing in a shopping mall, but it was a very thoughtful exercise to look at each item and evaluate its significance. What is each object’s story? Is it worth preserving in the national collection? Why? How does it fit within, or stretch, our intellectual themes and artifact categories? I will put these items in the Museum’s shopping cart and submit our request to NASA, along with a justification for each item. So far, we curators have selected and justified about 65 items after discussing their merits for the collection. Individually they may seem like a motley assortment, just as what you put in your grocery cart is a jumble. But each one has a place and a purpose in the Museum. Step by step, opportunity by opportunity, we are building a coherent collection of artifacts to document and preserve the history of human spaceflight in the Shuttle era.