Update: The junkyard owner has contacted Motherboard and informed us that he's preserved the rover.
During the Apollo missions, NASA only made a handful of lunar rovers. Three of them are still sitting on the surface of the moon. One of them is at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. And another was recently smashed into bits in an Alabama junkyard.
According to documents acquired by Motherboard as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, a priceless lunar rover prototype designed for the Apollo missions was sold to a junkyard in Alabama for scrap metal sometime last year. Specific names and details are redacted in the documents, which include internal emails and reports by NASA's Office of the Inspector General, the agency responsible for investigating and recovering lost and stolen NASA property.
According to NASA, the now-destroyed rover was a Local Scientific Survey Module designed, built, and tested at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1965 and 1966. A US Air Force Historian who happened to be passing through the small town of Blountsville, Alabama spotted the rover in the backyard of the person who ultimately ended up selling it, and alerted NASA in February of 2014. NASA apparently dragged its feet in recovering the rover, however: By December, it had been destroyed.
"He noticed the rover in the backyard of a neighbor across the street"
"We spoke with [the] historian for the US Air Force, who originally brought the vehicle's existence to the attention of the Marshall Space Flight Center's historian," NASA's Office of the Inspector General wrote in one of the documents. The historian "stated he was visiting his mother when he noticed the rover in the backyard of a neighbor across the street."
NASA tracked down the rover, which had a very sad ending: "Upon contacting the current owner, we learned the Lunar Roving Vehicle had been sold for scrap after [its previous owner] had passed away," NASA wrote in an internal investigation memo.
"It is a shame that it couldn't be saved for posterity, either by NASA or through private means," Robert Pearlman, who runs the popular space memorabilia website CollectSPACE, told me. "This isn't the first time space history has been recycled as scrap. For example, at least two Gemini-era Astronaut Maneuvering Unit prototypes were recovered from a junkyard a number of years ago. One is now in a museum and another is in private hands."
How did this person end up with the rover in the first place? It's unclear. NASA did not respond to a Motherboard request for more specifics, but an attorney quoted in the report noted that early Apollo prototypes were rarely tagged and often went missing.
The rover was apparently massive: NASA notes that the Local Scientific Survey Module, as it was called, "weighs more than 8,000 pounds, is 21-feet long, 15-feet wide and has 6 wheels with 5-foot diameters." [Update: LSSM was a "class" of lunar module with several different models. The one in question is much smaller, has four wheels, and has apparently not been scrapped.]
According to the book Apollo: The Lost and Forgotten Missions, the LSSM "could carry 600 pounds of scientific equipment up to five miles from the lunar module shelter, and had a capability of up to 125 miles travel around the site. A second astronaut could ride in the rear cargo space if required."
A retired Marshall Space Flight Center historian, Skeet Vaughan, has information about and a photo of the LSSM posted on his website (it's the photo you see above, which shows Werner von Braun, the inventor of the Saturn V rocket, driving it). Vaughan says it was tested at MSFC in June of 1965, so the timeline at least checks out. Update: As someone on Reddit pointed out (and as I wondered myself), NASA describes the rover in question as having six wheels. Without seeing the photos NASA has, we unfortunately can't know which specific model was junked.
Whatever the rover in question was sold for, it was certainly worth more as a historical artifact than as a hunk of scrap metal. There's a vibrant market for space memorabilia. In 1993, for instance, video game developer and eventual space tourist Richard Garriott bought a Soviet Union lunar rover for $68,000 (he technically owns it but it's still on the moon). Apollo-era rover license plates that sat on the moon have sold for up to $22,500, space food that has gone to the moon is worth upwards of $30,000, and a Bulova watch that went to the moon sold last week for $1.6 million.
"Our hope is that the vehicle could be put on display"
The rover in question was a prototype and thus never saw action in space, but you've got to figure that it was likely worth a lot, considering that never-used space suits from the era have sold for as much as $43,750. I was unable to find a single instance of a lunar rover prototype being sold to a private collector in the United States, and Pearlman told me he's only seen lunar rover parts for sale.
"If it could be determined to be the same prototype that Wernher von Braun test drove, and if it was in restorable condition, and if the title to it was free and clear and if it was placed into a well-publicized auction, [it's worth] maybe $15,000 to $25,000," Pearlman told me. "But, as indicated by all the 'ifs,' that's a blind estimate based on a little to no information. It could be more or less than that based on any number of factors."
The monetary and historical value of old space artifacts is primarily why NASA has an investigative division tasked with tracking down these sorts of things. In an initial letter to the owner of the lunar rover, NASA noted that the prototype "represented an important step in the design and engineering of the final rovers utilized during the Apollo program."
"Marshall Space Flight Center played a crucial role in designing the Lunar Rover Vehicles, and we are very interested in preserving the history of their development," NASA wrote. "Returning this vehicle to MSFC would allow [us] to restore the vehicle so that it might be used for historical and educational purposes. Our hope is that the vehicle could be put on display."
If you know anything more about this rover's story or what became of it, please contact us.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, Motherboard has compiled a series of documents from the NASA Office of the Inspector General, NASA's investigatory arm. The Office of the Inspector General is responsible for tracking down lost space artifacts, dealing with employee misconduct, and investigating mishaps that occur in space and near NASA facilities.
Much of the identifying information in these documents is redacted, making it difficult to track down the key players in certain instances. Many of these documents contain information that is worth reporting out to turn into full features or news stories, but many of them simply highlight government weirdness. We're tired of sitting on the documents and have started Motherboard Mysteries, a series in which we'll post everything we know about a news story, as well as the documents the story is sourced from. If any of these stories ring a bell or if you have any further information about any of these stories, please contact me at email@example.com.