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Historic NASA rover found in Alabama scrap yard

An anonymous scrapper saved a vehicle used as a prototype for America's first moon mission. Is this an indication that respect for NASA and space history has grown?

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    Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, deploys a scientific research package on the surface of the moon near the Lunar Module (LM) "Eagle" during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity in this NASA handout photo
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Five massive space rovers were created in the 1960s for humankind's first exploration of the moon.

This week, Motherboard broke the story that one of them has been sitting in an Alabama scrap yard.

NASA had attempted to reacquire the rover, and initially indicated in a report obtained through a Freedom of Information request that it had been destroyed.

A NASA document posted on the website Scribd shows the space agency attempted to regain the rover as recently as 2014, but was told it had been sold as scrap.

A Motherboard reporter tracked down the scrap yard owner who said the rover would remain in their possession until it could be sold. 

“NASA just discarded a lot of stuff back then,” he said, to Motherboard, on the condition of anonymity. “When it was brought to my scrap facility, I set it aside because I knew what it was. The unit does not exist today. It is not scrapped. I have the unit in storage.”

The scrapper stated the original owner of the rover had bought it at an auction. A claim the Alabama resident said was reinforced when contacted by NASA.

“NASA told me when they came out to inspect it that they had looked for it for 25 years,” the unidentified person said. “I was told it is the rarest of all the units."

Luck may have saved the hulking four-wheeled, metal machine from the profits it could bring as scrap. But the larger lesson may be an indication society now has a greater appreciation for NASA’s accomplishments. Or maybe NASA has a greater appreciation for its own accomplishments.

While it was once auctioned off, NASA’s letter to the space buggy’s previous owner, whose name was redacted, stated the vehicle “represented an important step in the design and engineering of the final rovers utilized during the Apollo program.”

“Returning the vehicle to Marshall Space Flight Center would allow MSFC to restore the vehicle so that it might be used for historical and educational purposes,” it read. “Our hope is that the vehicle could be put on display to help preserve the rich history of the Apollo program and to educate the general public about the nation’s space history.”

Why it was auctioned off in the first place is still a mystery. What is known is the machinery, now gutted to its core, is a prototype called a Lunar Roving Vehicle developed in 1965 and 1966.

Four others remain. Three are still on the moon and another at the located at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The price of space memorabilia appears to reinforce the idea those types of wares are growing in importance. Rover license plates alone are now being sold for $500 apiece, according to one auction site. Other memorabilia can go for tens of thousands of dollars. 

And NASA's Office of Inspector General is now specially tasked with recovering historically significant artifacts, Motherboard noted. 

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