Update: NASA tells Motherboard that it cannot legally claim the Rover.
Tuesday, we told the sad story of a prototype NASA lunar rover that was sold by an Alabaman to a scrap yard. That is true, but there's a twist: A heroic scrap dealer has saved the buggy, which appears to be in good condition.
The scrap dealer spoke to Motherboard on the condition of anonymity because he says he wants to speak to his lawyer about his next steps, but he did send me the recent photo of the buggy above to confirm it's in his possession. The rover matches a historical NASA image we believed to be the rover in question. It also matches the description given by NASA in its investigatory documents.
"The man who originally bought it, from my understanding, he bought it at an auction. He was a road conditioner [in Alabama]," the junkyard owner told me. "I can't confirm this is true, but he bought it at a NASA auction many years ago. NASA just discarded a lot of that stuff back then. When it was brought to my scrap facility, I set it aside because I knew what it was. The unit does exist today. It is not scrapped. I have that unit in storage."
"I've done quite a lot of research on the unit and it's an artifact that needs to be saved," he added.
The owner confirmed to me that the rover in question is the one ridden by Saturn V rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (pictured below), and that it weighs "a little less than 600 pounds."
The junkyard owner told me that NASA representatives came to his scrapyard last year in an attempt to recover the rover, as is noted in the Freedom of Information Act request documents we published yesterday. However, it's unclear why NASA’s Office of the Inspector General stopped trying to acquire the rover if it knew the rover still existed. The FOIA documents note that the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center wanted to restore the vehicle “so that it might be used for historical and educational purposes.”
NASA did not immediately respond to a Motherboard request for comment and did not respond to two emails I initially sent the agency about the original investigation.
"NASA knew it was still available. In my mind, they tried to play a trickery game. They wanted me to loan it to them, but I think they just wanted to get it into their possession. They offered me [perks], they offered me everything but cash," the junkyard owner said. "NASA told me when they came out to inspect it that they had looked for it for 25 years. It is the von Braun, the first and last they made. I was told it is the rarest of all the units."
The junkyard owner told me that he had been planning on selling the rover before Motherboard published its story Tuesday. Our story was passed along in scrapyard email lists, the owner said, and he decided to reach out to me after being contacted by several of his colleagues.
The owner said he's still planning on selling the rover.