Lightsaber hitchhikes aboard shuttle

The Force really is with them.

The seven astronauts now in orbit on space shuttle Discovery are carrying a piece of baggage from a galaxy far, far away: a lightsaber used as a prop in the hit movie Return of the Jedi.

In the 1983 film, actor Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker wielded the lightsaber as he rescued his friends from gangster Jabba the Hutt. The lightsaber handle — the laser "blade" was created by special effects — had been stored in the archives of Lucasfilm, the company that created the Star Wars series, until its ride into space last week.

The movie artifact is the latest in a long line of items, from wacky to touching, that U.S. space crews have taken to orbit to be used as souvenirs and gifts once they return to Earth. The tradition dates back at least to 1961, when astronaut Gus Grissom spirited a pocketful of dimes onto the second U.S. spaceflight.

Discovery's crew is not expected to handle the lightsaber, which is packed in an inaccessible compartment. The astronauts probably wouldn't have time, anyway: NASA decided Monday to add a day to an already busy mission so the crew can inspect a malfunctioning piece of the International Space Station.

Some objects, including the lightsaber, blast off as part of the shuttle's official flight kit, assembled mostly by NASA officials. After landing, the contents are distributed to schools, space workers and companies as mementos. A June shuttle flight, for example, carried Monopoly game pieces that were presented to game manufacturer Hasbro.

Space crewmembers are allowed to take a small packet of items for friends and families. On a flight last year, astronaut Joe Tanner took the gearshift knob from a car he and his son were restoring together.

NASA employees, including astronauts, are barred from profiting from their carry-ons, but some items do make their way to the collectibles market, says space-memorabilia expert Robert Pearlman, who runs the website Even symbolic items, like flags, that have flown in space can fetch $250 to $500, he says.

Among other notable items that have defied Earth's gravity:

• A religious scroll owned by a Jewish boy living in a World War II concentration camp. The first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, took the scroll to space in 2003. Ramon and his crew died when their shuttle, Columbia, crumbled during re-entry.

• A small statute of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of success and wisdom. Astronaut Sunita Williams, who is half-Indian, had it with her during her six-month stay on the station.

• A scarf owned by Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviator. It launched in 1994 with astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command the shuttle.

The lightsaber's intergalactic journey began with an idea from Space Center Houston, the official visitors center for NASA's Johnson Space Center. The visitors center will display it as part of an exhibit on Star Wars' 30th anniversary.

The lightsaber got a lot of fanfare before it was loaded onto the shuttle, including a send-off by Star Wars characters Chewbacca and Jedi knights. Filmmaker George Lucas attended Discovery's launch.

The 1½-pound lightsaber is one of the heavier space souvenirs. It costs roughly $5,000 per pound to launch an item on the shuttle, according to the Futron Corp., a space research firm.

Flying such a prop and other items on the shuttle can raise public interest, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield says.

"This is everyone's space program," he says. "This is a way to give people ownership."