Shuttle artifacts: Going once, going twice…

Fancy an undergarment with built-in cooling? NASA has a few to spare.

With the shuttle program ending this year after nearly three decades of flying, the agency is turning to an eBay-style online service to find homes for surplus and historically significant wares.

No money is changing hands — at least not yet — but eligible shoppers can browse through about 2,500 artifacts to let NASA know what they'd like. The service is intended for museums, schools and other non-profits — private collectors and foreign agencies need not apply.

"These are all things that NASA doesn't think we will need at the end of the shuttle program," Joel Kearns, NASA's transition manager for space operations, told Discovery News. "We're doing this ahead of time so all the decisions are settled when the space shuttle rolls down the runway for the last time."

The sales are taking place as the Obama administration is announcing that it will no longer finance a space vehicle program, but will rely instead on private industry to build rockets to carry astronauts to space.

NASA's first batch of shuttle goodies is already spoken for, though distributions won't begin until the shuttles are retired later this year. Those with first dibs — the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and the NASA Visitor Centers — can pre-screen the second lot until Feb. 17.

"I'd really like to have a spacesuit to round out our collection, but I'm not sure our prospects for that are very good. I think NASA is going to send all of them to the space station, which means they are never going to be brought back," Valerie Neal, shuttle program curator at the Air & Space Museum, told Discovery News.

Next on her list is a jet-powered backpack worn by spacewalking astronauts as a rescue device.

"Anything basically that the crew has handled," Neal said, "and ordinary things that astronauts use to live their daily lives in space."

When previous space programs ended, NASA simply loaded everything in boxes and sent them to the Air & Space Museum, the only national repository for space artifacts at the time. These days, there's more competition, but you won't hear complaints from Neal, who has been piecing together the museum's collection for 17 years.

"This really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity," Neal said. "It's nice that you can put what you want in a shopping cart and check out."

The Web site doesn't allow users to see who else has their eyes on an item, nor does it list a "sale" price. The artifacts are free, but selected recipients will need to arrange for packing and shipping.

The Air & Space Museum is estimating it will need about $100,000 to retrieve the approximately 500 items on its wish list. That's in addition to the $28.8 million the museum needs to raise to add the shuttle Discovery to its collection.

NASA has yet to decide where its two other orbiters, Endeavour and Atlantis, will spend their retirement years.

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