When the Apollo 15 mission landed on the moon in July 1971, it took with it the first ever vehicle to be driven by humans on another world; the lunar roving vehicle (LRV). In the long and complex history prior to that event, however, NASA commissioned the construction of a range of test vehicles for the Apollo program, many of which were eventually scrapped once their experimental use was concluded. One such vehicle – a mid-1960s LRV prototype – ended up in the hands of a junkyard dealer who decided not to break it down for scrap but, instead, held on to it for some years. "Rediscovered" late in 2015, the long-lost prototype is now headed for auction where it is expected to fetch at least US$125,000.
Rediscovered in a suburban backyard, the vehicle has recently been authenticated as a genuine lunar rover prototype (originally called the Local Scientific Survey Module, or LSSM), by an engineer who once worked with Wehrner Von Braun's team at NASA. First created by a company called Brown Engineering specifically for the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center some time around 1965 or 1966, the vehicle was formed largely in aluminum, had exceptionally large wheels with balloon tires and was powered by electric motors.
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Though most of the original equipment seems to be missing from the LSSM prototype, Otha H. Vaughan, Jr., who worked as aeronautical research engineer with Wernher von Braun, has apparently examined the vehicle, declared it authentic, and signed a letter of confirmation (along with Johnny Worley the current owner of the machine) to that effect.
A scant few photos exist of the original, but two of these display the vehicle in action, with one of these showing the great von Braun himself piloting it, proving that it had at least been an operational test platform. And though the prototype did not go into space or was even considered actual flight hardware, according to Otha Vaughn Jr. the team did manage to stuff the LSSM into one of NASA's KC-135 Zero G aircraft and fly it to gauge how the vehicles components behaved in zero gravity.
Interestingly, looking at the photographs of the original, and comparing it to that of the recent find, the "roll cage" (for want of a better term) appears now to have a different – sharper – radius to the bend on the top. Whether this is due to some change made to the prototype at NASA or after it was sold for scrap, is unclear. Nevertheless, when Otha Vaughan verified the authenticity of the vehicle, he also noted the fact that NASA frequently rid itself of all types of excess equipment like the LSSM by selling it off as scrap. Johnny Worley also claims that the person who originally purchased the vehicle from NASA, did so at an auction, and then left it in his backyard in Blountsville, Alabama for some years.
It was in that backyard that a US Airforce historian visiting a neighbor saw and identified the prototype. Quickly snapping some photographs, the historian reported it to the Office of Inspector General at NASA. Some time later NASA tried to recover the vehicle, but it had disappeared again. According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and included as part of the auction sale, it would appear that NASA was under the impression that the LSSM really had been finally scrapped, stating "since the LRV is no longer available for recovery, this matter is closed in the files of this office. No further action will occur."
Nevertheless, the vehicle did once again surface in the possession of the current owner, and is currently stored in Memphis, Tennessee. The auction house (the same house that sold an original Apollo 15 wristwatch for an eye-watering US$1,625,000) notes that, as such, the buyer will be responsible for shipping costs from there to the purchaser's destination.
With online bidding set to start April 14 and close April 21, interest is sure to be high in such a historic and interesting artifact from the height of the American space race.
Source: RR AuctionView gallery - 7 images