One of the greatest things about the moon landing is that we brought a car up there to drive around. There were many prototypes before the real one that went to the lunar surface in 1971, but one of the prototypes was sold off and was feared scrapped until yesterday.
Vice’s Motherboard reported the story, and it’s a real page-turner. For 50 years, the Rover prototype, one of just a handful ever to exist, was thought lost to history. Then word arose that the prototype had recently been sold off by the estate of a junk collector in Alabama to a scrapyard, which had supposedly destroyed it.
“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.”
There are three lunar landers currently sitting on the surface of the Moon, waiting for somebody to come back, charge them up and hit the road. Another is in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. This prototype looks nothing like any of the ones that eventually went to the Moon, but it was part of the research process to understand not only how to drive on the Moon, but how to get a car up there.
“Boeing, Bendix, Grumman, and Chrysler all submitted proposals to build the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle,” we wrote in an article in 2014. Boeing eventually won the contract for the vehicles that actually went to the Moon. Each one of those cars weighed 462 pounds, and could carry over a thousand pounds in payload. Their chassis were hinged in the middle, allowing the cars to be folded up and stored in the Lunar Module.
The prototype in question was a different vehicle entirely. Known as a Local Scientific Survey Module, it was built at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in 1965 and 1966. The vehicle was developed around June 1965 under a subcontract with the Brown Engineering Company here in Huntsville. Amazingly, photos exist of the LSSV with Werner Von Braun behind the wheel.
You can read about all the different prototypes here.
For 50 years, nobody knew what happened to it, or thought to ask. In 2014, though, a keen-eyed US Air Force Historian was driving through the town of Blountsville, Alabama, according to Motherboard. He alerted NASA about his discovery back in 2014.The prototype had been purchased years before at a NASA auction.
According to the documents secured by Motherboard’s Freedom of Information Act request, NASA sent a team to investigate:
“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,” according to NASA’s Office of the Inspector General in 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 the rover to its location, but “Upon contacting the current owner, we learned the Lunar Roving Vehicle had been sold for scrap after [its previous owner] had passed away.”
But two days later, Motherboard got the news that the scrapyard owner had saved the Local Scientific Survey Module, and sent along current photos to prove its current state.
Motherboard spoke to the scrap dealer on condition of anonymity: “The man who originally bought it, from my understanding, he bought it at an auction. He was a road conditioner [in Alabama],” according to the article. “I can’t confirm this is true, but he bought it at a NASA auction many years ago. NASA just discarded a lot of that stuff back then. When it was brought to my scrap facility, I set it aside because I knew what it was. The unit does exist today. It is not scrapped. I have that unit in storage.”
The junkyard owner suggests that NASA had the chance to buy it from him, but balked:
“NASA knew it was still available. In my mind, they tried to play a trickery game. They wanted me to loan it to them, but I think they just wanted to get it into their possession. They offered me [perks], they offered me everything but cash,” the junkyard owner told Motherboard. “NASA told me when they came out to inspect it that they had looked for it for 25 years.”
The owner had been planning on selling the Rover before the attention on Tuesday. He’s still planning on selling it, but he’s evaluating his options with an attorney now.
Scribd has the original document from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General, to Jason Koebler, who wrote the article for Motherboard: