Image: Bonhams

NASA's Quest to Reclaim Lost Spacesuits Before They Were Auctioned

There's an incredible amount of bureaucracy that goes into proving you didn't steal NASA's stuff.

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Nov 11 2015, 2:30pm

Image: Bonhams

What do a military surplus store, an antiques mall in Texas, and the bottom of Florida's largest lake have in common? They all, at one point or another, were places where you could find historically important NASA spacesuits, if you were lucky.

Last year, two of the earliest spacesuits NASA ever made were put up for auction, spurring a bidding war that pushed the price of one of them up to $43,750. But before the sale, NASA wondered: Where the hell did these come from?

NASA launched a detailed investigation into the provenance and legal status of those two spacesuits, one from the Mercury missions that originally put Americans into orbit and one prototype suit from the Apollo missions, according to documents obtained by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information Act Request (embedded below).

The investigation documents make for fascinating reading as they delve into the complexities of space artifact ownership, NASA policy, government bureaucracy and record keeping, auction management, and even spacesuit manufacturing specifications. In this case, the documents span six decades and several NASA and Smithsonian offices.

Selling historical space artifacts isn't easy. NASA claims that nearly any artifact it made or contracted is government property, and there are precious few instances in which it's legal to own or sell a spacesuit, or a lunar rover, or astronaut food … you get the idea. Generally, NASA has to give an artifact to you personally (and there are strict limitations on what astronauts themselves are allowed to sell—these regulations were loosened somewhat for Apollo-era astronauts in 2012), or it has to otherwise toss out or lose track of the piece in question in order for you to legally own it.

The Mercury suit (top) and the Apollo suit (bottom). Images: Bonhams

Luckily for space collectors, in the early days, NASA had notoriously bad cataloguing techniques and perhaps a lack of foresight in what would one day be worth something. As a NASA historian noted in the investigation documents, "unfortunately for training and test suits, initials and numbers were hand added to the suits in Sharpie, with no authoritative stamps whatsoever."

A handwritten addendum to a NASA memo from 1992 that notes that an Apollo-era spacesuit was purchased a military surplus store in 1980.

Case in point: NASA lost track of a lunar rover prototype that was recently discovered at an Alabama junkyard, and the agency couldn't prove that it ever actually owned it. In the case of these space suits, one was bought via a newspaper classified ad back in the 1980s; the other was bought at a military surplus store for what was surely a pittance. NASA couldn't prove either was stolen and ultimately waited too long to make any sort of legal claim to the spacesuits, and so the auctions went off without a hitch.

"American space suits, we cannot sell if they flew," Cassandra Hatton, the woman who orchestrated the sales for the auction house Bonhams (the Apollo suit did not hit the minimum bid amount and was not sold), told me. "The training ones—they threw them all in the trash because they thought we would be doing these missions forever."

An initial inquiry from a woman who wanted her Apollo-era spacesuit authenticated.

In fact, one NASA historian consulted in the investigation noted in an email that there are "plenty of [the Mercury suits] around" in the hands of private collectors. In a particularly interesting anecdote, the historian remembers NASA authenticated a Mercury spacesuit that a fisherman once caught in Lake Okeechobee.

The full documents are worth reading if you're a space geek, but here, essentially, is the quick story of these two spacesuits.

Mercury Suit

An email from a NASA historian who was contacted during the investigation.

BFGoodrich was contracted to create some of America's first space suits, and also made a series of suits for medics and other people involved in the program but who were not going to fly. (Fun fact from the documents: BFGoodrich also made between 4 and 20 "mini-me" space suits for children. These were handed out to companies involved in the space program; the whereabouts of at least one is known to NASA—at a historical society in Pennsylvania).

An excerpt from NASA's Office of the Inspector General report.

No one knows what NASA ultimately did with this suit (please let me know if you do), but it ultimately ended up in the hands of someone in Austin, Texas. This person sold the suit for $400 using an Austin American-Statesman classified ad to a woman who worked in an antiques mall. The woman displayed the suit there for roughly a year, but wasn't able to sell it. She then had Bonhams sell it last year—it fetched $43,750.

It's tough to read the photocopied documents, but NASA went all the way back to some of the original 1960s specifications documents to determine just how many of these were made. It looks like at least four pressure suits were commissioned, with more, unpressurized versions made for testing and training purposes (I can't explain the discrepancies on this "deliverables" page. Every microphone, screw, visor, and component is listed on these documents, but, from what I can tell (again, it's hard to read), these documents don't say how many test suits were made.

Apollo Suit

This suit was deemed excess, unwanted property by NASA back in 1971 or 1972 (it's unclear exactly when this happened as two dates are cited). It was given to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, though the Air and Space Museum has no record of ever actually storing the item. It somehow ended up at a military surplus store, where a person purchased it in 1980.

A letter affirming that NASA transferred the suit to the Smithsonian.

There's an extensive paper trail for this particular document. There's the original 1972 memo declaring that, as the suit "has no further requirements in the space program," it is being transferred; there's a letter from a woman who ultimately ended up with it and wanted it authenticated back in 1990 (check out that sweet old "worm" logo on the memos); there's letters from 1991, 1992, 1995, and 1996 in which NASA, the Smithsonian, and the owner of the suit try to figure out how the Smithsonian lost it in the first place (they don't come to much of a conclusion).

This extensive paper trail helped Hatton in trying to sell the suit, she told me.

"When NASA contacted us, we could produce every single letter and every single fax," she said. "NASA tried to get it back. They certainly tried. Luckily, that person had the documentation, but most people don't in many cases. Someone like me can't sell the items for you if you don't have the paperwork—lots of times you go, 'Wow, this thing is amazing,' but without paperwork, it's worth zero."

In this case, NASA decided to just drop the issue entirely.

"Although the provenance of the two spacesuits is unclear, there is no evidence of theft regarding the items," NASA's Office of the Inspector General wrote in November of 2014, seven months after the Mercury suit sold at auction. "Combined with the time lapse of deciding if NASA would claim these items, the Office of General Counsel agreed that NASA would not pursue an ownership claim for these two suits."

If you know anything more about these spacesuits' original provenance, about the military surplus store sales, or about the fisherman who caught a spacesuit in Lake Okeechobee, please contact us.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Motherboard has compiled a series of documents from the NASA Office of the Inspector General, NASA's investigatory arm. The Office of the Inspector General is responsible for tracking down lost space artifacts, dealing with employee misconduct, and investigating mishaps that occur in space and near NASA facilities.

Much of the identifying information in these documents is redacted, making it difficult to track down the key players in certain instances. Many of these documents contain information that is worth reporting out to turn into full features or news stories, but many of them simply highlight government weirdness. We're tired of sitting on the documents and have started Motherboard Mysteries, a series in which we'll post everything we know about a news story, as well as the documents the story is sourced from. If any of these stories ring a bell or if you have any further information about any of these stories, please contact me at jason.koebler@vice.com.

Spacesuit Investigation Part 1

Spacesuit Investigation Part 2