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Challenger artifacts intended for President Reagan recovered after 36 years

An STS-51L crew patch and American flag recovered from among the debris of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 were prepared by NASA for presentation to President Ronald Reagan but instead ended up in the collection of a liaison to the White House.
An STS-51L crew patch and American flag recovered from among the debris of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 were prepared by NASA for presentation to President Ronald Reagan but instead ended up in the collection of a liaison to the White House. (Image credit: Gray's Auctioneers via collectSPACE.com)

Artifacts that were recovered from the fallen space shuttle Challenger and prepared for presentation to the President of the United States have been recovered again, 36 years later, after they surfaced at auction among the collection of a NASA liaison to the White House.

Little is known about how or why the late James Foster Fanseen, who died in 2000, had come into possession of the small American flag and crew patch (opens in new tab) that were mounted to a plaque and inscribed to "Ronald Reagan, President of the United States." Once recognized for what they were, though, the artifacts were restored to the proper hands, now at the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, collectSPACE.com has learned.

More work needs to be done to authenticate and document the plaque's history before it can be formally accepted by the National Archives and Records Administration. The expectation, though, is that when the research is completed, the plaque will go on display at the library.

The staff at the library was unaware that such a plaque existed until it was brought to their attention by the auctioneers and collectSPACE. The National Archives and Records Administration, which operates the Reagan Presidential Library, declined to comment for this article.

Related: Remembering Challenger: NASA's 1st Shuttle Tragedy in Photos

'Slipped the surly bonds'

On Jan. 28, 1986, NASA's space shuttle Challenger, carrying a crew of seven, lifted off on the 25th mission of the program. Seventy-three seconds after leaving the launch pad at 11:38 a.m. EST (1638 GMT), a faulty O-ring seal in one of the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters failed, leading to the vehicle breaking apart.

STS-51L mission commander Francis "Dick" Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair and payload specialists Gregory Jarvis and "Teacher in Space" Christa McAuliffe (opens in new tab) were killed in the disaster, marking the first time in U.S. history that NASA astronauts had been lost in flight.

Related: NASA video honors fallen astronauts of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia

President Ronald Reagan addresses the nation after the loss of space shuttle Challenger and its STS-51L crew from inside the Oval Office at the White House, Jan. 28, 1986. (Image credit: National Archives)

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God,'" said Reagan in an address to the nation that evening.

Eight months later, after the investigation into the disaster had concluded, NASA announced that some of the mementos recovered from among Challenger's debris (opens in new tab) would be presented to organizations and institutions who had supported the mission. In addition, the agency would "suitably prepare and present" an STS-51L crew patch and a flag (opens in new tab) to each U.S. state and territory, as well as to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

"Since our space program is the nation's program, all its people should have a reminder of the Challenger and its crew," said then-NASA Administrator James Fletcher.

The Oct. 27, 1986 release omitted any mention of a plaque for the President of the United States, but an internal memo held by the Smithsonian makes mention of the president's plaque in relation to the presentation of the plaque for the National Air and Space Museum.

Fanseen at the time was working as a consultant to Fletcher and as a liaison to the White House and Capitol Hill, a position he held at NASA from 1980 to 1991.

Lot no. 1

In addition to being made out to Reagan, the 17.75 by 11.25-inch (45 by 28.5 cm) chestnut and gold anodized aluminum plaque read, "This flag and crew patch were flown as part of the Official Flight Kit aboard the orbiter 'Challenger', STS 51-L, January 28, 1986" and bore Fletcher's signature.

Per the Presidential Records Act of 1978, gifts presented to the President are not the president's to keep or give away.

"They are gifts to the office. They aren't gifts to the individual," said Randle Swan, supervisory curator at the Reagan Library. "If the individual who is President wants to keep them, then they have to pay for them at fair market value."

It is not clear, though, if the plaque ever made it to the White House or, for example, if it sat in Fanseen's office waiting for a ceremony that never occurred.

"Unfortunately, nobody from that generation is still alive," Serena Harragin, co-founder and owner of Gray's Auctioneers, told collectSPACE. "All that the relatives could say was that it was amongst all his stuff. It has been held in storage for almost 20 years since he passed."

The chestnut and gold anodized aluminum plaque dedicated to the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, included photos of the fallen crew and the NASA Administrator's signature. (Image credit: Gray's Auctioneers via collectSPACE.com)

Gray's listed the plaque as the first lot in its Holiday Auction (opens in new tab) that went online in November 2021. The plaque was paired with a NASA lithograph of the STS-51L crew, a memorial pin, a NASA art print portfolio and a copy of the Presidential commission on the space shuttle Challenger accident.

The entire lot was estimated to sell for $3,000 to $5,000.

Even before the catalog was published, questions about the plaque's provenance caused Harragin to seek out more information.

"We tried for several weeks to get an answer from the Reagan Library, but, of course, the library had been shut down due to COVID. It wasn't until just before Thanksgiving that I was finally able to get hold of the head of all the libraries, who put me in touch with the Reagan Library," she said.

Although the details were (and still are) far from known, Gray's consulted with Fanseen's family and they decided to withdraw the plaque and hand it over to the National Archives.

"They were actually very excited. They thought it was wonderful that something that had been lost to the public was possibly going to be available again," Harragin said.

Missing piece

Until now, the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum has had only photographs and paperwork to connect the administration with the Challenger tragedy.

If the plaque is cleared to go on display, it will help bridge that gap.

Currently, the Challenger exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is limited to text and photos. (Image credit: Reagan Presidential Library)

President Reagan's plaque may not be the only NASA Challenger presentation to have gone missing. According to a survey conducted by collectSPACE (opens in new tab) in 2016 and updated since, only 17 of the 50 plaques presented to the U.S. states could be located on public display or held in archives.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.