March 27, 2001 -- Imagine placing a twisted scrap of metal on your coffee table and boasting to friends you own this piece of Russian history — this chunk of the fallen space station, Mir.
OK, so it wouldn't actually be a piece of the Mir, but, as its vendor points out on the auction Web site eBay, "You can tell your friends that this is a real piece of the Mir Space Station, and only you will know that it is not."
Fake Mir space junk is only one among a collection of several Mir-related items already for sale on the auction site. But so far there have been no reports of people finding real pieces of the fallen space station. Since the station was guided to fall over a large swath of the Pacific Ocean rather than on land, some feel the chances of people finding actual pieces of the station are slim to none.
As James George, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Space Frontier Foundation, says, "It landed in an awfully big ocean."
Still, not finding debris hasn't stopped people from trying to sell it.
One day after the space station fell to earth, two people claimed to have chunks from the station and were starting bids on eBay at $2,000. The offers were soon labeled as "invalid."
Finding Floating Debris
George, who flew on a tour to watch the Mir's descent, supposes the only chance some crafty scavenger will actually come up with a piece of Mir debris is if it washes up on land.
Most of the Mir station burned up in the atmosphere during its reentry early last Friday morning, but George says some remains, such as the station's pressurized tanks, likely survived the reentry and are probably floating either on or just below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
"There's a chance items that float, like the tanks, could wash up," he says.
Until pieces of the real thing are found, collectors can choose from a number of Mir related items in the offing. Some Mir-related souvenirs now for sale on eBay include an abstract painting of the Mir falling to earth, copies of old Russian speeches about the station and several toy models of Russia's former pride and glory.
If you need a place to sell your own Mir tchotchkies, there's even a Web domain name for sale, called Mirparts.com. The seller reports: "I had over a thousand people hit the site in the last 24 hours, so there's apparently a good deal of interest in this."
Only Lukewarm Interest
But some wonder even if people manage to score a piece of the real debris, exactly who will buy?
Alan Needell, head curator of the Smithsonian's Space History museum in Washington, D.C. says the museum "probably would have some interest in it." But, he adds, they would never pay to acquire such items.
Needell points out he isn't aware that any museum now exhibits pieces of other fallen space stations, such as NASA's Skylab station, which fell to earth in 1979. And, he says, the museum already has a small collection of donated fallen space debris from less famed sources such as parts from old stage rockets set off in the 1970s.
"Certainly if someone were to offer a donation of space debris from the Mir we would look into it. But we could never purchase any item," Needell says.
Allen Hoilman, curator of the Virginia Air and Space Museum, says he might consider acquiring a piece of Mir debris for the museum. But Hoilman says the idea is only appealing if the piece of debris were interesting.
"I'm not sure we'd want just a chunk of metal," he says. "It would have to be something more identifiable."
George is skeptical any successful Mir scavenger would make a good profit. He says his colleague Rick Citron, a Los Angeles lawyer, was unsuccessful when he tried to sell Skylab debris that had been found in the Australian outback.
"The more time that passes since the time that Mir reentered, the less interest in debris there will be," he says. "Interest in space debris is nothing compared to that of movie buffs or even Barbie collectors."