NASA has lost track of a “significant” number of historic items related to spaceflight due to shoddy management, according to a new report.
In the 60 years since it was founded, NASA has fostered a vibrant heritage of American leadership in space. But an audit released Monday from the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG)—a watchdog group tasked with rooting out crimes, waste, and mismanagement at the agency—found that NASA has often been careless with the space memorabilia that emblematizes its storied history.
“NASA’s processes for loaning and disposing of historic personal property have improved over the past six decades, but a significant amount of historic personal property has been lost, misplaced, or taken by former employees and contractors due to the Agency’s lack of adequate procedures,” the report said.
One of the most egregious examples cited in the report concerned a prototype of NASA’s Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). Though this vehicle never went to space, it was a partial replica of the "Moon buggies" deployed on the lunar surface during the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. The rover had fallen off the map until a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Motherboard revealed that a US Air Force historian had spotted it in the backyard of his mother’s neighbor in Blountsville, Alabama in 2014.
The historian reported the sighting to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, but the agency failed to procure the vehicle before it was sold to a junkyard. The junkyard owner sold the rover at auction for an undisclosed sum in 2016. NASA never recovered it.
This particular episode exemplifies the cavalier attitude with which some NASA artifacts were handled, especially in the agency’s early years. Valuable items were sometimes kept as personal keepsakes, such as a contested vial of moon dust that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong gifted to his friend's daughter in the 1970s.
NASA also lost track of a bag of lunar material collected by the Apollo 11 astronauts, which was sold at auction for $1.8 million in 2017. In addition, an employee at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, was instructed to trash three Apollo 11 command module handles in the 1980s, but sold them instead. NASA did not recover any of these items, according to the report.
On the plus side, the OIG report said that NASA’s artifact identification and storage practices had significantly improved since the Apollo era, and concluded that “historic real property”—meaning NASA buildings and facilities—were well-managed.
However, one remaining problem spotlighted in the report concerned materials recovered from Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, which malfunctioned in 1987 and 2003, respectively, resulting in the deaths of all crew members onboard.
Select remains of the launch vehicles can be loaned out for research purposes from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. But the OIG found that Kennedy did not ensure that these loan agreements were signed by all parties. Fortunately, no Challenger or Columbia artifact has been lost, but to ensure the continued safety of the materials, the report suggested mandatory signatures on loan agreements and security plans specific to the borrower’s location.
“Moving forward, NASA risks losing additional historically significant property if it fails to improve its control and accountability over these assets,” the report warned. “Such losses will diminish NASA’s ability to fulfill its education and outreach missions and will deny future generations a tangible window into historic NASA missions.”
In other words: you’re in charge of some ridiculously cool stuff, NASA. Take care of it.
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