Audit: NASA Has Improved Management of Historic Assets But Improvements Still Needed

Lunar rover prototype (Credit: image, NASA; left photo, NASA; right photo, U.S. Air Force)

A prototype lunar rover vehicle, an Apollo 11 sample bag with lunar dust on it, and parts of two Apollo command modules are among a number of historic items that NASA has lost possession of over the past 60 years, according to a new audit by  the agency’s Office of Inspector General. [Full Report — PDF]

“NASA’s processes for loaning and disposing of historic personal property have improved over the past 6 decades, but a significant amount of historic personal property has been lost, misplaced, or taken by former employees and contractors due to the Agency’s lack of adequate procedures,” the audit concluded.

“Reclaiming this historic property has proven challenging because of the significant effort required to find the property as well as the Agency’s reluctance at times to assert an ownership claim over the items,” the report stated. “In addition, past efforts to recover historic personal property have been thwarted by NASA’s poor record keeping and a lack of established processes for timely coordination of recovery efforts.”

During its early years, NASA freely allowed astronauts to take memorabilia from their flights. Although the agency has gradually tightened its procedures over the decades, a number of historic items have slipped through NASA’s fingers.

Bureaucratic delays resulted in NASA being unable to recover a prototype lunar rover vehicle after an U.S. Air Force historian spotted it in a residential neighborhood in Alabama. The owner was willing to return the vehicle to NASA but grew impatient with the agency’s bureaucracy.

“However, after waiting more than 4 months for a decision from NASA, the individual sold the rover to a scrap yard,” the audit stated. “NASA officials subsequently offered to buy the rover, but the scrap yard owner refused and, realizing the historical value of the rover, sold the vehicle at auction for an undisclosed sum.”

Apollo 11 lunar collection bag. (Credit: Souteby’s)

The Apollo 11 lunar sample bag has a fascinating history. In 2003, the FBI seized the bag from the home of a former CEO of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center as part of a criminal investigation. A private citizen then bought the bag for $995 after a judge authorized the U.S. Marshals Service to sell it at government auction.

After the new owner asked NASA to authenticate that the bag had flown aboard Apollo 11, NASA filed suit to recover it, but a judge ruled the sale to be legal. The owner’s $995 investment turned into a $1.8 million windfall after the bag sold at auction.

Three hand controllers used to steer the Apollo 11 command module were taken home by a retiring NASA employee after they had been stored in a safe.

Apollo 11 hand controller (Credit: RR Auction)

“Years later, the former employee sold the controllers at auction to a collector of space memorabilia,” according to the report. “When NASA learned of the sale, it sought return of the controllers to replace the mockup controllers that were on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. After 3 years, NASA discontinued its pursuit of the items.”

The space agency was more successful in retrieving a part from an earlier Apollo mission.

“During its attempts to retrieve the three Apollo 11 controllers, the OIG became aware that the former employee had also retained a command module translation handle from the Apollo 9 spacecraft that was used to steer and provide abort capabilities,” the audit stated. “The former employee voluntarily returned the handle, after which NASA transferred it to the Smithsonian to be included in an existing display.”

The audit recommended that NASA:

(1) develop a process to more effectively identify, validate ownership of, and coordinate within NASA and/or other federal agencies on the recovery of historic property;

(2) develop comprehensive procedures for identifying and managing heritage assets;

(3) evaluate and justify the existing list of NASA- and contractor-held heritage assets to determine whether the Agency is the most effective owner and what property should be retained;

(4) ensure Space Shuttle Columbia and Challenger artifact agreements are signed, appropriately updated, and include all necessary loan terms, including a security plan developed by the borrower and reviewed by Kennedy’s Office of Protective Services; and

(5) ensure NASA policies and procedures for using the proceeds from facilities leased under NHPA appropriately align with Agency goals.

NASA concurred with recommendations 1, 3 and 4 while partially concurring with recommendation 2. It did not agree with recommendation 5.

A report’s executive summary follows.

Audit of NASA’s Historic Property
NASA Office of Inspector General
October 22, 2018
Report No. IG-19-002
Full Report (PDF)

Why We Performed This Audit

Since its creation in 1958, NASA programs have been responsible for advancements in space exploration, scientific research, and aeronautics. Through the years, these activities have produced numerous items of historical significance, large and small, that played a vital role in the Agency’s achievements. NASA’s historical assets can be broadly classified as either historic real property (e.g., buildings, structures, and test sites) or historic personal property (e.g., cameras, spacesuits, and mission logs).

NASA continues to use most of this historic real property for current projects while also maintaining what are known as “heritage assets,” which include real and personal property that no longer serve a mission purpose but have historical, cultural, educational, or aesthetic significance. Failure to appropriately preserve or account for this property may result in the loss of irreplaceable property with great historical value to NASA and the country.

For the past 8 years, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has identified aging infrastructure and facilities as a top management challenge for NASA. Continuing our oversight in this area, we initiated this review to assess NASA’s management of its historic real and personal property, including the processes the Agency uses to identify and account for such property, the challenges the Agency faces in managing historic property, and the extent to which historic real property is being used in ongoing Agency missions.

To complete this audit, we reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations, NASA policies and procedures, and applicable lease agreements; interviewed NASA officials and contractors; and benchmarked with the Smithsonian Institution regarding its process for retaining historic property.

What We Found

NASA’s processes for loaning and disposing of historic personal property have improved over the past 6 decades, but a significant amount of historic personal property has been lost, misplaced, or taken by former employees and contractors due to the Agency’s lack of adequate procedures. Reclaiming this historic property has proven challenging because of the significant effort required to find the property as well as the Agency’s reluctance at times to assert an ownership claim over the items.

In addition, past efforts to recover historic personal property have been thwarted by NASA’s poor record keeping and a lack of established processes for timely coordination of recovery efforts. For example, poor record keeping contributed to the Agency losing possession of an Apollo 11 lunar collection bag that contained lunar dust particles.

In other cases, NASA’s delay or reluctance in asserting ownership of an item has led to missed opportunities to retrieve historical property. For example, a U.S. Air Force historian noticed what he thought was a NASA prototype Lunar Rover Vehicle in a residential neighborhood in Alabama and reported his sighting to NASA, who then referred the information to the OIG.

The OIG contacted the individual in possession of the rover, who expressed interest in returning the vehicle to NASA. The OIG requested NASA assert ownership of the rover and, if appropriate, make plans to accept it as a donation; however, after waiting more than 4 months for a decision from the Agency, the individual sold the rover to a scrap metal company. NASA officials subsequently offered to buy the rover, but the scrap yard owner refused and, realizing its historical value, sold the vehicle at auction for an undisclosed sum.

We also found that NASA does not have adequate processes in place to identify or manage its heritage assets, which are predominantly personal property. First, the Agency has not adequately defined the roles and responsibilities of Agency officials responsible for identifying and managing such assets. None of the personnel from the two Centers we visited—Ames Research Center (Ames) and Kennedy Space Center (Kennedy)—could explain who was responsible for originally designating heritage assets or why an item was designated.

Moreover, while NASA has procedures to address the management of heritage assets, we found these procedures are often in conflict with other procedures, are vague, and do not adequately describe the processes intended to identify and preserve the assets. In addition, we found that NASA may not be the most appropriate entity to manage certain heritage assets.

For example, the Agency categorizes 815 pieces of art work as heritage assets, the majority of which remain in storage rather than on display at NASA Centers because maintaining the correct temperature, humidity, and lighting to ensure their proper preservation can be costly. Transferring these assets to an outside organization, such as the Smithsonian Institution, would allow the art to be more effectively preserved and displayed.

In contrast with its management of historic personal property and heritage assets, NASA has strong internal controls for managing historic real property, including leasing some of this property to external entities under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). However, we found the Agency could more effectively manage funds generated from its two current NHPA lease agreements at Ames. Under NHPA, proceeds from historic real property leases must be used to maintain, repurpose, or refurbish other NASA historic facilities listed on the National Register of Historic Places (National Register).

NASA policy limits where funds from NHPA leases may be used, requiring that the funds generally be first offered to the Center that generated the lease. While this policy makes sense when that Center can use those funds for mission-critical historic properties, the policy can also result in NASA renovating facilities that lack a mission use.

For example, rather than using funds generated from Ames’ lease of Moffett Airfield to help maintain one of the Agency’s more than 240 facilities listed on the National Register that supports a NASA mission, Ames is planning to use the funds to refurbish a historic building on the Center that it hopes to lease to an external tenant.

However, Ames has not identified any prospective tenants with mission-specific collaboration efforts that would offset the cost of the renovations. In our view, NASA policy should be revised to permit proceeds generated from NHPA leases to be used on historic properties at any NASA facility that furthers the Agency’s mission.

Finally, we identified improvements NASA can make in its procedures for securing debris collected from the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters and loaning artifacts from Columbia to aerospace and educational entities for research purposes.

What We Recommended

To improve the NASA’s management of historic personal property, heritage assets, Space Shuttle artifacts, and funds generated from NHPA leases, we made five recommendations to NASA:

(1) develop a process to more effectively identify, validate ownership of, and coordinate within NASA and/or other federal agencies on the recovery of historic property;

(2) develop comprehensive procedures for identifying and managing heritage assets;

(3) evaluate and justify the existing list of NASA- and contractor-held heritage assets to determine whether the Agency is the most effective owner and what property should be retained;

(4) ensure Space Shuttle Columbia and Challenger artifact agreements are signed, appropriately updated, and include all necessary loan terms, including a security plan developed by the borrower and reviewed by Kennedy’s Office of Protective Services; and

(5) ensure NASA policies and procedures for using the proceeds from facilities leased under NHPA [National Historic Preservation Act] appropriately align with Agency goals.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with three of our five recommendations. We consider management’s comments to Recommendations 1, 3, and 4 responsive; therefore, those recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon verification and completion of the proposed corrective actions. Management partially concurred with Recommendation 2 and did not concur with Recommendation 5. These recommendations will remain unresolved pending further discussions with the Agency.

  • AdmBenson

    As a redneck status symbol, a lunar rover in your yard is way better than an old engine block.

  • duheagle

    Absolutely.

    I wonder if NASA might find some of its missing stuff if it looked in the couch cushions. NASA probably has a lot of couches. Might find enough loose change to finish up the James Webb Space Telescope while they’re at it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Most of the stuff that was “lost” would have probably been destroyed or scrapped by NASA, like the lost Apollo 11 tapes. Folks should be grateful it was rescued from the scrap bin for future generations.

    And it not just NASA that destroys American history. All of the famous Wind Class of icebreakers which explored the polar regions were cut up for scrap metal. If a government agency doesn’t care enough about history to preserve it they shouldn’t demonize those private citizens who do care and work to protect it.

    Just look at Mojave where a pair of rare C-133s are rotting away, surplused by the USAF. They should have gone to museums but instead they will get cut up for scrap.

  • redneck

    So you are suggesting a couch cushion change mission for NASA? Run from which center? Funding from which source as I believe NASA is experienced enough in Porkology as to require external funding to pick up money.

  • duheagle

    I’m guessing NASA could probably plan and execute a search of all its couch cushions fairly quickly – say five years.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It really depends on the RFI wording and the contractors who respond to it. Then don’t forget the NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance will need to provide close oversight as there are risks involved in lifting and searching furniture.

  • Lee

    Also don’t forget what an international incident would be created if non-US coins are discovered. Would the countries from which that coinage originated be eligible to claim a percentage of the mission based on the value of their currency found?

  • Geoff T

    To be fair to NASA, anyone want to claim credit for that prototype rover? It’s like something from Little Tykes™. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b1984bcfd1224c3f4fdd1912c485ac067d7f67c66e5bc67afcddd2cfcab370d3.jpg

  • Jeff2Space

    I’ve seen the C-133 at the USAF Museum in Dayton Ohio many times (I believe it’s now inside one of the hangars now). I agree that rare aircraft like this deserve to be in as many air museums as possible across the United States. I’m lucky I’m within an hour’s drive of the USAF Museum.

  • duheagle

    Yes, silly me. I also neglected to consider possible hazmat scenarios depending upon just what else may be hiding under those couch cushions.

  • duheagle

    Lawyers and the State Department! Okay, I guess we need to add another five years to the mission planning.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I recall seeing one at the SAC Museum many years ago. It would probably be possible to move one to the March AFB Museum as it already has a great collection of aircraft and has a good restoration program. The other would make a good “Gate Guard” next to the Convair 990 at Mojave Air and Spaceport.

  • James

    All right look this is to complicated a task to just jump at it all nimbly pimbly. So we will all meet back in here in 2 months to schedule a meeting to plan the meeting for our “couch cushion” exploratory prob and possible appropriation of resources.

    Also someone check Travis Taylors house…he may have a bunch of stuff we are missing in a shed.