One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And on rare occasions, one man’s trash ends up being a national treasure. One of the original Nasa prototypes that inspired the Apollo moon program's Lunar Roving Vehicle (pictured above) goes up for auction 14 April, despite the fact that the US space agency lost track of it for decades.
Future and technology site Motherboard got wind of a long-lost vehicle — a prototype lunar rover from the mid-1960s known as a Brown Engineering Local Scientific Survey Module, or 'Brown LSSM' — that had reportedly been spotted in a junkyard in the US state of Alabama before mysteriously disappearing. In September 2015, Motherboard writer Jason Koebler filed a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request with Nasa regarding the whereabouts of the MIA rover. In return, he received an internal investigation memo from Nasa explaining that the prototype had, indeed, “been sold for scrap after [its previous owner] had passed away."
With the LRV “no longer available for recovery,” Nasa noted that it had concluded its investigation of the missing vehicle. Koebler, then, reported in his October 2015 Motherboard article that the rover had been “smashed to bits”.
Plot twist: While the priceless piece of space exploration history did reside for years in an Alabama junkyard before being sold to a scrap dealer, the “moon buggy” was not destroyed.
A few days after Motherboard’s story was published, Al.com confirmed that the missing buggy had been found safely in the hands of Tennessee scrap dealer Johnny Worley. Worley had first laid eyes on the rover a few years earlier on a visit to Alabama, but he had been unable to make a deal with its owner at that time. In 2014, he received a call from one of the owner’s children, who said the owner had died, and her children were willing to sell. At that point, Worley went back to Alabama and purchased the rover for an undisclosed sum.
As news spread of the missing rover’s recovery, Worley began receiving offers to purchase the vehicle. Nasa representatives tried to reclaim the lost artefact, but the space agency was not able to prove that the item had been stolen or mistakenly discarded. Investigators could not even confirm that the machine was actually a Nasa rover because of its lack of visual clues and authenticating documents.
“There’s nothing we could do — there were no markings on it, no Nasa property tag or anything that would indicate that we could say ’This is our property.’ We had no legal claim to it,” Tracy McMahan, a spokesperson for Marshall Space Flight Center, told Motherboard in a follow-up story.
Nasa can’t claim without a doubt that it’s their property, but Otha Vaughn, a member of the engineering team that developed the prototype for Nasa in the mid-1960s, has confirmed that the 'Brown LSSM' is authentic.
RR Auction, the company hosting the weeklong auction of the rover prototype and other space and aviation artefacts, will provide the highest bidder with a letter of authenticity stating that Vaughn “positively and firmly identifies the pictured LSSM as the authentic Brown LSSM after carefully inspecting and measuring the artefact.” The letter also states that the prototype rover never made it into space, thus not requiring an official tag from Nasa.
An estimate by RR Auction places the value of the rover prototype as high as $150,000. Bidding commences on 14 April.
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