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Lunar rover lost... and found: NASA moon buggy saved by scrap dealer

The thought lost but now found NASA moon buggy as it appears today in an Alabama junkyard. (scrapyard owner via Motherboard)
October 28, 2015

— A prototype lunar rover that was sold to a scrapyard and reported by NASA to be lost has now been found and may be heading to auction.

Just one day after the online magazine Motherboard broke the story about the thought-to-be-scrapped moon rover on Tuesday (Oct. 27), the 50-year-old NASA artifact popped up in the classifieds section of an Alabama newspaper.

"Special Auction," declared the black-and-white ad placed in The Arab Tribune. "Original prototype for the first moon buggy!"

The coincidental timing of the ad aside, it was the first public indication that the rover, a predecessor to the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) driven by the Apollo astronauts on the moon, still existed. According to the NASA paperwork obtained by Motherboard, the space agency had given up on recovering the early LRV for "historical and educational purposes" after it had learned it had been sold for scrap.

Classified ad promoting the auction of the "original prototype for the first moon buggy." [Sections have been blurred to respect the dealer's request for anonymity.] (The Arab Tribune)

But a spokesperson for the auction, who wished to remain anonymous, said NASA representatives had come to see the rover, taken measurements, and even "authenticated it." The dealer is now making sure he has legal title to the rover before going forward with its planned sale.

Developed in 1965, the prototype moon buggy, or mobile test article (MTA) was built by Brown Engineering for the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. At one point, German rocket pioneer and then-center director Wernher von Braun took a turn test driving the MTA, also known as a Local Scientific Survey Module, on a track at Marshall.

The ten-foot-long (3 meter) Brown MTA was accidentally rediscovered in 2014 by a historian for the U.S. Air Force while he was visiting his mother in Blountsville, Alabama. Spotting it sitting in a neighbor's backyard, he took photos of the four-wheeled vehicle and alerted NASA.

From there, the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) at Marshall tried to reach out to the owner, requesting the rover be returned so it could be restored. The letter though arrived too late, as the original owner was reported to have died and the rover sold to a scrap dealer.

Rocket pioneer and MSFC director Wernher von Braun test drives the Brown Engineering mobile test article in 1965. (NASA)

But the scrapyard's owner had, in fact, set it aside.

"The unit does exist today. It is not scrapped. I have that unit in storage," the owner said on Wednesday (Oct. 28).

It was not immediately clear why NASA closed its case in December 2014, although the dealer told Motherboard that it may have been because he was unwilling to donate it.

"I think they just wanted to get it into their possession," he said. "They offered me [perks], they offered me everything but cash."

A photograph of the rover as it appears today reveals that it is in rough shape. It appears to be missing the antenna dish that was originally mounted to its top, as well as the driver's controls and seat that was used to drive it.

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