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In a fairly shocking report that will make you laugh, cry, or vomit, NASA’s inspector general has revealed that the space agency appears not to give much of a hoot about its valuable, historically significant, and irreplaceable collection of one-of-a-kind artifacts from space missions. The new report shows that “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.”
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Space modules, prototypes, moon dust—you’d think they would guard this stuff. Turns out…nope! NASA, which employs over 17,000 people, is described in the report as unconcerned or unprepared to deal with the loss of artifacts. Reasons for the losses range from the troubling (“poor record-keeping”) to the deeply troubling (“reluctance in asserting ownership”).
The report splits NASA’s many historic aspects into two categories: “real property,” which includes historic locations, such as Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and “personal property,” which includes items like space suits and mission logs. The report found that NASA’s historic real property is well-managed to the extent that it is still in use—SpaceX recently used Launch Complex 39, for example.
But in terms of personal property, the horror stories are astonishing and abundant. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) offers up the case of a missing Lunar Rover prototype as an example:
A U.S. Air Force historian noticed what he thought was a NASA prototype Lunar Rover Vehicle in a residential neighborhood in Alabama and reported his sighting to NASA, who then referred the information to the OIG. The OIG contacted the individual in possession of the rover, who expressed interest in returning the vehicle to NASA. The OIG requested NASA assert ownership of the rover and, if appropriate, make plans to accept it as a donation; however, after waiting more than 4 months for a decision from the Agency, the individual sold the rover to a scrap metal company. NASA officials subsequently offered to buy the rover, but the scrap yard owner refused and, realizing its historical value, sold the vehicle at auction for an undisclosed sum.
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The report also details how Max Ary, former head of something called the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center (KCSC), had sold items on loan from NASA at auction! for his own profit.
And then there was the Apollo 11 lunar collection bag that contained lunar dust particles. In 2011, a judge ordered that property seized from Ary be turned over to the U.S. Marshal Service to be sold at auction. The bag went up for auction three times with no bidders (!) before an Apollo fan named Nancy Lee Carlson bought it for $995. The marshals’ auction website listed it as simply a “lunar sample return,” so Carlson sent it to NASA to verify which mission the bag was used on.
NASA recognized the bag as part of the Ary holdings and confiscated it as government property. Carlson sued them, and a judge ruled that while the auction should not have been permitted in the first place, Carlson was legally entitled to the bag.
She resold it for $1.8 million.
Not all the losses are malicious—some stemmed from sheer incompetence. Three command-module hand controllers that steered the Apollo 11 spacecraft were properly stored and labeled in the Johnson Space Center. Still, somehow, a NASA employee was told by a supervisor to throw them out. Instead, he sold them. NASA has been scrambling to find them for three years and counting.
The OIG report does say that NASA’s record-keeping has improved. That’s a little like saying the Mets were better this year than they were last year, but it’s a start. Its recommendations going forward include basic things like developing “comprehensive procedures for identifying and managing heritage assets” (ya think?) to examining every detail of its loaning protocol. To the OIG, we say: Those are both fine ideas. And it’s good that you did this report. Please, make more recommendations to protect and secure this stuff. Because they’re not making any more of it.