Thanks to improper management, NASA has lost a wide array of historical spaceflight memorabilia over the last few decades — such as an old lunar soil bag, former spaceflight hand controllers, and even a test lunar rover. That’s according to a new report out today from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General, which analyzed how the space agency oversees its historical assets. While procedures have improved at NASA, a few unique pieces of storied spaceflight property have either been misplaced or taken by ex-employees.
NASA mainly has two types of historical property to look after: actual property like buildings and test sites, some of which are still used to support current missions; and personal items like spacesuits and other tools, many of which aren’t needed anymore but have a rich history. NASA’s inspector general has already noted that much of the space agency’s actual property is more than 40 years old and in need of repair. Additionally, NASA is still preserving a bunch of facilities it doesn’t need any more but keeps around just in case — a decision that has led to expensive maintenance costs.
In light of all of this, the OIG decided to look even further at NASA’s system for overseeing both historical property and hardware. And the report paints a somewhat embarrassing picture of NASA’s management of these important pieces, especially in regard to the numerous historical memorabilia that aren’t in use anymore. NASA has had a difficult time getting property back that has been lost or taken over the years, and the space agency hasn’t been forceful enough in claiming ownership over things that used to belong to NASA, according to the report.
One example the OIG mentions is the loss of a lunar rover prototype, which Motherboard first reported. Back in 2014, a historian noticed what looked like an old lunar rover in a neighbor’s backyard. He told NASA, and the Office of Inspector General reached out to the individual who had the rover on display. The owner said he was interested in giving it back to NASA, but after four months of inaction from the space agency, the individual sold the rover — to a scrap heap owner. The new owner didn’t give the rover back to NASA but instead sold it at auction.
Other cringe-worthy stories are highlighted in the report, detailing instances where NASA has been alerted of lost items that have been put up for auction. Poor records led to the loss of a lunar bag, filled with actual lunar soil, which was seized by the FBI and sold at auction. NASA tried to get it back but a judge ruled the agency had to return it to the person who purchased it. Additionally, one former employee wound up taking home three joysticks used on the Apollo 11 mission — the first crewed mission to the Moon — after being told to throw them out. He later sold the joysticks at an auction, which prompted NASA’s attention. The space agency tried to go through the legal process of getting them back, but gave up after three years.
The NASA OIG is also concerned with how the space agency loans out pieces from the Space Shuttles Columbia and Challenger, the two vehicles that were lost during flights to and from space. NASA sometimes loans out debris and other pieces of these vehicles for research. The space agency doesn’t always require formal agreement signatures from the institutions borrowing these artifacts. Nothing has been lost just yet, but the OIG is worried that the lack of formal loan agreements could cause misunderstandings between NASA and those borrowing the agency’s property.
To be fair, things used to be worse at NASA. The OIG mentions that during the early human spaceflight programs, like Apollo and Gemini, NASA would just give out memorabilia to astronauts for free as gifts. Procedures have obviously changed drastically since then, and the OIG notes that NASA is getting better in other areas, too. But there are a lot of areas that need sharpening. The OIG gave NASA a list of recommendations for how NASA can better define and manage all of its historical property. NASA has agreed with most of the recommendations, which will hopefully prevent more historical items from disappearing into the unknown.