Space buffs can be hard to buy for. I mean, it's not like you can just run out to space and pick something up: getting stuff into space, and then back again, is very difficult and frequently very expensive. We're not talking about "space gifts" like telescopes and model rockets and that sort of thing, but rather, actual gifts that have spent time out in the cosmos. And some of them, remarkably, are even affordable.
First, let's establish what "space" is: it's anything beyond the Kármán line, which is 62 miles (or 327,000 feet) above sea level. Yes, that means that none of those high-altitude balloons that kids send up, nor the Red Bull "space dive," were anywhere near what is technically space. We're going to be very picky about this, and insist that all of these space gifts have been at least to sub-orbit, although some of them have been much, much farther.
All of the items on this list can be acquired (at least temporarily) by regular people in some way. Some of them are cheap, some of them are absurdly expensive, some of them are relatively common, and some are practically unavailable. We'll provide links and prices when we've got them, but otherwise, for the more esoteric stuff you'll have to get creative (and probably rob a bank or five).
Here we go!
1. Moon Dust
It's against federal law to own any part of the Moon that Apollo astronauts brought back. This includes big rocks, small rocks, tiny rocks, rock fragments, and even dust, and NASA will go after you if you end up with some. In fact, the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury astronauts themselves, who were all gifted Moon rocks back in 2004, aren't technically allowed to own them: they're still the property of NASA, on loan.
There are two, maybe three ways in which you can legally get your hands on some Moon dust. Way number one is to buy one of the 100 or so Moon dust samples that President Nixon handed out to world leaders in 1969 that the U.S. doesn't own anymore. Good luck with that. Way number two is to buy Moon dust from a Soviet sample return mission, which shows up on the market almost never. And way number three is to buy Moon dust that was collected from the surface of an artifact that was legally sold to a private collector, which occasionally happens when NASA forgets to properly clean things. Suffice it to say that Moon dust doesn't come up for sale often, and it's absurdly expensive when it does.
Price: $1,000+ per grain
2. Moon Rocks
There's one other totally legal and far easier way to get a piece of the Moon: buying lunar meteorites. When an asteroid impacts the Moon, it blows off a bunch of Moon rocks, and occasionally, one of those Moon rocks will find its way through space to Earth. It's easiest to find meteorites of all sorts in Antarctica (since you can see them lying out in the snow in the middle of nowhere) and African deserts (for the same reason, except in sand), and a lot of the African meteorites get sold to dealers, who cut them up and sell them to collectors. Only about 1 in every 1,000 meteorites has a lunar origin, and approximately 50 of them are known to exist.
The average cost (depending on the meteorite) for a piece of the Moon is about $1,000 per gram, but you can get tiny fragments for well under $100. Your best bet is to go through a reputable dealer: here's one source for very small samples ($50 each), and for larger pieces, check here. I don't know anything about this particular dealer, but they have a bunch of good stuff and don't look totally sketch (despite the website), so feel free to look elsewhere.
3. Mars Rocks
Rocks from Mars get to Earth in the same way that rocks from the Moon do: they're sent here via asteroid impacts. It's estimated that a handful of Martian meteorites fall to Earth every year, although most of them end up in an ocean, and most of the rest are never found. Every once in a while, though, someone runs across one, and there are about 65 of them known to exist, making them slightly more common than meteorites from the Moon. They're also cheaper than lunar meteorites for some reason; you can get small samples for $45ish, and for larger pieces, check here or go through another dealer. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars per gram, which sounds like a lot, but remember that you're buying a piece of rock FROM MARS that survived two impacts plus millions of years in interplanetary space.
4. Iron Meteorites
Iron meteorites are some of the most common meteorites (accounting for upwards of 90% of all finds), and also some of the most meteorite-y looking. For a typical piece, you might pay just $1 per gram, which is about as cheap as it gets for a space rock. While many iron meteorites just look like partly rusted hunks of metal, some of them have a lovely bubbly, melty look as pictured above. The most famous of these is Sikhote-Alin (also pictured above), which witnesses saw explode in a huge fireball over Siberia in 1947. An estimated 50,000 pounds of material fell to Earth, and it's readily available, if not exactly cheap depending on how cool the piece you want looks.
Price: $1+ per gram
5. Etched Iron Meteorites
If you cut an iron meteorite open and dunk it in acid for 30 seconds, this beautiful pattern will appear. It's called a Widmanstätten pattern, and it's formed when iron crystallizes after cooling very, very, very slowly. You can only see this in iron that's taken several million years to cool, so you never find it on Earth, just in meteorites. Incidentally, most meteorites are ancient: we're talking about 4.5 billion years old, which is a solid 500 million years older than the oldest rock ever found on Earth and (not coincidentally) about the same age as our planet itself. Anyway, you don't have to be quite as picky when you're looking for an etched iron meteorite (because they're not as fake-able), so check out eBay (or a dealer).
Price: $2+ per gram
Getting really fancy now are pallasites, which are some of the rarest types of meteorites. There are only about 60 of them known on Earth, and if you cut them into slices, it exposes an array of large green and yellow olivine crystals that look absolutely lovely when backlit. For a nice specimen, though, you'll pay quite a bit.
Price: $100+ per gram
7. Space Mail
One of the cheapest space program items that you can get are postal covers that have flown on space shuttle missions. NASA had a partnership with the U.S. Postal Service to carry them into space and back and then sell them, and the agency wasn't fooling around: on STS-8, Challenger carried nearly 260,000 (!) commemorative envelopes (called covers) bearing $9.35 express mail stamps. They were sold for $15.35 each in nice folders at the time, and it's usually not hard to find them online nowadays for between $20 and $30 (check eBay). If you're in the market for something more exotic, covers were also carried to the Moon on Apollo missions up through Apollo 15, but they're much rarer and more expensive.
8. Space Seeds
In 2006, million of basil seeds were carried up to the ISS on space shuttle Discovery. They were placed outside the station and exposed to space, and then returned to Earth the following year. Why? Because, says NASA, "astronauts on future missions to the Moon and beyond are going to want to take plants along for the ride— for food, oxygen and even companionship. It's important for NASA to learn how seeds endure space conditions and germinate in low gravity." Companionship, huh?
NASA has packaged a handful of these "space basil" seeds with non-space basil seeds, and is selling little kits where you can observe the difference between them as they grow (spoiler alert: the space basil does better). The seeds are free, you just pay for shipping, and NASA will apparently send them to "students, parents, educators, and informal," which means you!
9. Space Hardware
Lots and lots of crap goes into space, and much of it eventually comes back to Earth. Some of it is sent up specifically to be turned into a collectible, but there's also all kinds of little bits and pieces of the spacecraft themselves that make the trip and then aren't useful anymore. If NASA has no reason to hang on to it, it often ends up in the hands of the public.
A quick search for "space flown" on eBay turns up several hundred items. There are collectible flags that were carried on shuttle missions, used checklists, bits of foil and tape, heat shield fragments, pieces of thermal blankets and tires, a space sleeping bag from Mir, and even a small American flag that visited the surface of the Moon on Apollo 15 that can be yours for just $4,400. Just make sure you get it from someone who's reliable and can provide proof that your item has actually been into space.
10. NASA Program Artifacts
So, what happens to all of the crap that goes into space that NASA does have a reason to hang on to? Since your tax dollars paid for every last nut and bolt, NASA is to some extent obligated to make it available for the public to enjoy, which is why it has a bunch of programs to make these "program artifacts" available to the public. Some examples of what you can get include shuttle components, parts from Hubble and Skylab, space food, thermal tiles, and even a space suit worn by Neil Armstrong.
The best part about these program artifacts? They're ABSOLUTELY FREE! And the catch? You have to pay for shipping and whatever special handling requirements are necessary, you have to be a teacher at an educational institution that's registered with the government, and oh yes, you definitely can't keep any of it. Apply here to see what's on offer.
Price: Loan Only
11. Your Own Satellite
The selection of gifts from space is very limited, since we're restricted by what gets carried up there in the first place. If there's a specific item that you would like to spaceify by sending it into orbit (like, I dunno, a bowl of petunias or something), the cheapest way to do that (with the possible exception of bribing an astronaut) might be to buy yourself a Cubesat.
Cubesats, we should mention, are not designed for controlled, survivable reentries. They generally de-orbit by themselves within about 25 years of launch and then burn up in the atmosphere. So, you'd have to design a Cubesat that incorporated some sort of de-orbiting system, a heat shield, a parachute, a locator beacon, and likely a flotation device, along with the petunias, all in a four inch cube with a mass of under three pounds. No problem! And once you've got the design finalized, launching the thing piggyback on a commercial rocket isn't that expensive, really.
12. A Trip to Space
Why settle for a gift from space when you can instead give the gift of space? You've heard about this before but it belongs in this list anyway: if you've got the scratch, Virgin Galactic will send you over 62 miles straight up, which gets you a splendid suborbital view and six minutes of unfettered weightlessness. And if you act today, a $1 million deposit will get you six seats for the price of five, essentially booking your own private spacecraft and putting you in the elite group of being among the first 1,000 humans to leave Earth. Plus, anything you carry along with you subsequently counts as a space gift.
13. A Trip to the ISS
Six minutes is not a long time to enjoy space, so for a more comprehensive space gift, you'll want to head all the way up to the International Space Station. For somewhere in the range of $35 million (or more), you can take a Soyuz capsule or (in a few years) Boeing's new crew capsule 250 miles into space to spend up to 12 days doing whatever the heck you want, including (if you can afford it) a spacewalk. Book your spot now at Space Adventures.
Price: $35 million+
14. A Trip Around the Moon
Space Adventures doesn't stop with the ISS: they'll send you all the way to the Moon, baby. Or at least, they're working on it. Using an Apollo-style Earth orbit rendezvous with Russian hardware, you'll be put on a free trajectory around the Moon's far side, joining the tiny handful of humans who have been farther from home than anyone else. You'll also be treated to an Earthrise, which is (I imagine) one of the most inspiring sights in the entire universe.
Price: On Request
15. A Trip to the Lunar Surface
Just in time for our gift guide (which I'm sure is no coincidence), the Golden Spike Company went public with its plan to offer round trip tickets to the surface of the Moon starting in 2020. Your ticket includes training, launch, an Earth orbit rendezvous, lunar orbit insertion, landing, 36 hours and two moonwalks worth of lunar surface time, a hundred pounds or so of Moon rocks, a lunar orbit rendezvous for the return journey, and a happy splashdown at the end. It's all going to be done with commercial hardware, and they'll be sending a new crew every four to six months. For you cheapskates out there, being the very first crew to volunteer will net you a discount of $100 million.
Price: $800 million+
16. A Trip to Mars
Just like with rocks, Mars is for some reason cheaper than the Moon. When it comes to getting there, at least, that reason seems clear: if Elon Musk has his way, 80,000 people will be heading to Mars every year. It'll be a one-way trip designed to start a colony, with the first shuttles departing in just 12-15 years. If you decide to go, you'll be in for an amazing adventure for sure, but you'll also be taking on a substantial responsibility: if Earth gets nuked by aliens (or humans, for that matter), it'll be up to you (and everyone else on Mars) to keep the human race alive. No pressure.