Found historic space hardware or artwork? NASA might have lost it

Found historic space hardware or artwork? NASA might have lost it

A prototype moon rover ended up in a scrap yard. A bag containing lunar dust particles hit the auction block. And the whereabouts of dozens of historic artworks is undocumented, while hundreds more are hidden from public view in storage.

NASA needs to do a better job of identifying and tracking its historic property, the space agencys internal watchdog said this week, including improving how it secures Challenger and Columbia shuttle accident debris.

"The agency has fallen short in the past maintaining its historic personal property, resulting in the loss of historically valuable property," NASAs Inspector General concluded. "Moving forward, NASA risks losing additional historically significant property if it fails to improve its control and accountability over these assets."

NASAs Office of Inspector General said poor records or follow-through over the years have resulted in the agency losing historic items. For example:

In 2015, a citizen paid $995 for a sample collection bag the FBI had seized from a museum executives home during a 2003 investigation. NASA in 2016 confirmed the bag had flown to the moon on Apollo 11 and tried to reclaim it, but a federal judge ruled the sale was legal, and the bag sold at auction last year for $1.8 million.A former NASA employee kept three Apollo command module hand controllers that he said a supervisor had told him to throw out, and eventually sold them to a collector at auction. NASA said it wanted them back to replace mockups in a Smithsonian display, but quit trying after three years.In 2014, an Air Force historian alerted NASA to what appeared to be a prototype moon rover outside a home in Blountsville, Alabama. After waiting four months for NASA to claim ownership of the property, the citizen sold the rover to a scrap yard, which sold it at auction. “NASAs reluctance or delay in asserting ownership of an item has led to missed opportunities to retrieve historical property,” the audit said.In total, NASA counts 1,730 heritage assets, which are no longer needed for missions but have "historical, cultural, educational or aesthetic significance."

More than 1,000 of those assets are classified as "art and miscellaneous items," and most of those are housed at Kennedy Space Center.

Twenty-nine pieces of the art are displayed on the fourth floor of KSC's headquarters, home to the centers top managers.

But another 638 pieces from the NASA Art Program are held in storage at the KSC Visitor Complex, unavailable for public display.

The first SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket launches the Bangabandhu-1 communications satellite from Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A on May 11, 2018.Displaying historic artwork with the proper lighting, temperature and humidity controls can be expensive, the auditors noted. But they suggested NASA consider turning over some of its collection to the Smithsonian Institution or other organizations more qualified to preserve and display such art.

The Visitor Complex for NASA does display numerous original works and reproductions that are not part of the NASA Art Program.

Of the total 815 pieces in NASA's art collection, the auditors found that the locations of nearly 130 were uncertain, thought to be on display at field centers.

Beyond artwork, KSC personnel said they generally relied on Delaware North to determine what merited designation as a heritage asset, recently including a space-flown Orion capsule.

But Delaware North said it only made suggestions, revealing what auditors said was a need for NASA to establish positions with clear responsibility for making such decisions.

"We question whether having a contractor make determinations as to which items NASA should retain for their historical importance is an appropriate process," the report states.

The report credited NASA with being a good custodian of historic infrastructure that in many cases has been repurposed for new programs, like its lease of KSCs pad 39A, a former Saturn V and space shuttle launch complex, to SpaceX.

But the auditors recommended stronger measures to protect debris from two shuttle accidents that killed 14 astronauts.

Some Columbia debris has been on loan to the University of Texas at El Paso without a signed agreement requiring the university to secure it properly or to certify regularly that the items are safe and in good condition.

Pieces of both shuttles are publicly displayed at the KSC Visitor Complexs Forever Remembered exhibit, but no agreement specifies who is responsible for securing the artifacts.

More comprehensive agreements "would add additional protection and accountability to these high-value artifacts," the audit said.

Contact Dean at 321-917-4534 or And follow on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean and on Facebook at

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By: Florida Today

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