Confederate flags flown aboard the international space station — and seemingly signed by a NASA astronaut — showed up last week on the online auction site eBay.
The original eBay listing indicated that the 4-by-6-inch flags were brought aboard the space station by Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov in 2004, and an accompanying photo showed a sample flag that seemed to bear Sharipov’s signature as well as that of Leroy Chiao, his NASA colleague on the station. Yet another photo showed several of the rebel flags floating in a space station module.
The item was pulled from the auction on Monday by the seller, Alex Panchenko of USSR-Russian Air-Space Collectibles Inc. in Los Angeles — and on Tuesday, Panchenko told MSNBC.com that he removed the items from sale because he had concluded the flag and the authentication documents were forgeries.
However, Robert Pearlman, editor and founder of CollectSpace, said he believes the flags are authentic.
“The picture taken of the flags aboard the station says a lot,” he said. “It would be difficult to fake, given the style and I couldn't see the motivation to do so.” The “onboard-the-ISS” stamp, added Pearlman, is not known to have been counterfeited anywhere."
The disappearance of the flags followed a round of criticism over the weekend from former space scientist Keith Cowing, publisher of NASA Watch, an independent Web log. He cited the Confederate flags as an example of “bad judgment on the ISS.”
“You'd think that someone on the U.S. side of the ISS program would have expressed some concern about flying a symbol on the ISS that many Americans associate with slavery,” Cowing wrote.
Astronaut: ‘I would not have done it’
NASA’s Chiao told MSNBC.com that he was surprised to learn of the Confederate flags.
“I do not remember ever seeing a Confederate flag onboard and I certainly don't remember signing one,” he said via e-mail.
“I would not have (signed) it,” he added.
Those who follow the space memorabilia trade say space veterans often sign hundreds of items stacked on tables in front of them, and may sometimes pay little attention to what they are scribbling on.
Chiao said that certifying such items in space and signing them later when back on Earth is a widespread Russian practice. Many of these items are gifts for Russian space organizations, and for the cosmonauts and their family and friends. Others wind up for sale on the memorabilia market.
“I have no doubt that the individual cosmonauts do sell some of their items, but remember that this is the norm over there,” Chiao said. “It is one of the accepted ways for them to make a little extra on top of their relatively small salaries.”
Chiao stressed that the Americans do not engage in space sales. “All of the items brought by U.S. astronauts are for personal purposes only, and not for resale,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There is actually only a very small amount that Americans are allowed to fly.”
“I flew a few pieces of jewelry and medallions,” Chiao said. “I also flew photographs of family members. They are not insured, since the intrinsic value of my items are very low, but the sentimental value very high.”
Chiao said that NASA’s ability to control what the Russians send is limited.
“They have no authority to tell the Russians what they can and cannot fly in their vehicles,” Chiao said. “The best they can do is to appeal to their counterparts to ensure that potentially offensive items will not be flown on Russian vehicles.”
NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told MSNBC.com that NASA was never provided details about which flags were in the Russian luggage. “I've learned the Russian manifests for their flights during Expedition 10 only listed ‘flags,’ and nothing more specific than that,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Chiao said that while the controversy surrounding the Confederate flags is unfortunate, he believes that astronauts taking mementos into space ultimately is good.
“I think that flying items in space is a wonderful tradition and nice touch for families and friends of space explorers,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, now and then a controversy arises.”