NASA isn't sure what happened to one of its last Apollo moon landers. The truth is probably depressing.

David Anderson/Business Insider; NASAThe story of NASA’s ‘missing’ Lunar Module 14 likely ended in tragedy, and perhaps a rebirth.
  • NASA ordered 15 space-grade moon ships for its Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Ten of those vehicles, known as lunar modules, or LMs, launched into space. Astronauts landed six of them on the moon.
  • After Congress cancelled the Apollo program, museums put three spare LMs on display in Florida, New York, and Washington, DC.
  • Grumman Aircraft (now Northrop Grumman), NASA’s main contractor for the landing craft, did not finish two of them – LM-14 and LM-15.
  • What was left of LM-15 was likely scrapped for metal. LM-14 probably met a similar fate, though historians don’t have documents that would say for certain.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In its race to land people on the moon, the US spent billions on Apollo spaceflight hardware. One essential piece of gear created for NASA was a landing craft called the lunar module, or LM.

Grumman Aircraft (now Northrop Grumman) created LMs, final versions of which weighed about 35,000 pounds and stood roughly two stories tall. Because they were the first true spaceships – vehicles that operated only in a vacuum – they had an alien appearance.

Paul Fjeld, a space artist and historian of the vehicles, described them as having an “angry” face that “looks like it’s going to dare you to call it ugly.”

“It looks like an unmade bed, and that was by design,” Fjeld told Business Insider

This was because, in spite of its rough-edged look, the LM design embodied form following function to keep astronauts alive.

“It cost an appalling amount of money to make it look that bad,” Fjeld added.

A recent independent accounting of the Apollo program suggests NASA spent about $US2.24 billion on lunar-module design, construction, and testing from 1963 through 1970. Adjusting for inflation, that’s nearly $US16.66 billion today. Though it’s tricky to calculate an individual LM’s cost, NASA ordered 15 space-worthy ships from Grumman, which works out to about $US1.1 billion each in today’s dollars.

Not every LM ordered for deep space actually made it there, though. When the Apollo program ended in December 1972, rockets had launched 10 of the moon ships, and six of these transported astronauts to and from the lunar surface (on Apollo missions 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17). NASA abandoned four in space during tests.

Five of the 15 modules never left planet Earth in part because NASA cancelled Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20. Three of these LMs are easy to account for, but where the last two ultimately ended up is less widely known or certain.

The uncertainty is especially thick surrounding the fate of LM-14: a spacecraft NASA would have used used on Apollo 20 (had that last mission not been cancelled). Space museum curators, Northrop Grumman and US government archivists, historians, and even NASA itself didn’t know or couldn’t say with certainty what happened to LM-14.

A version of the story of this “missing” moon lander that some experts would agree on, though, is depressing.

What NASA’s moon landers were and how 3 ended up in museums

NASAAn Apollo-era artist’s concept of NASA’s lunar lander or module rocketing toward the moon’s surface.

The lunar module was designed to take two of three Apollo astronauts from a command and service module in orbit around the moon, land them on the surface, and launch them off the ground.

Two main sections, or stages, got the job done. The descent stage came with a big rocket engine, which slowed the vehicle enough to drop out of lunar orbit and fall toward the moon’s surface. It also powered a gentle landing.

The vehicle’s ascent stage – a blocky upper section – blasted the crew off the moon following their surface mission. Once back in orbit, the ascent stage linked astronauts back up with the command and service module. This vehicle then took the two moonwalkers and a third astronaut (who’d waited inside during the landing) back home to Earth inside a gumdrop-shaped crew capsule.

Read more: ‘We could have lost the Apollo 11 crew:’ A once-classified anomaly nearly killed NASA’s first moon astronauts, a new book reveals

Kennedy space centre visitors complex florida Apollo Lunar Module 9 lm9 jud mccranie ccbysa3Jud McCranie (CC BY-SA 3.0)Grumman’s Apollo Lunar Module LM-9 on display at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex in Florida.

Grumman designed, pitched, and constructed the spacecraft as a contractor for NASA and collaborated with the agency on a number of prototypes. But NASA ultimately ordered 15 space-worthy ships numbered LM-1 through LM-15, which earned names like “Eagle” or “Snoopy” only after reaching orbit and housing crew members.

Three of these 15 LMs ended up in museums on Earth. LM-2 is in Washington, DC; LM-13 is on Long Island in New York; and LM-9 is in Florida.

Why the fate of NASA’s last 2 moon landers is somewhat unclear

Nasa apollo lunar module lm drawing illustration diagram labelled parts handbook LM10HandbookVol1 17NASAA labelled diagram of an extended lunar module from a Grumman handbook for NASA.

Reliable information about LM-14 and LM-15 – the last two space-worthy modules NASA ordered – is hard to find, and where official information does exist, it’s vague or conflicting.

On the website of the Smithsonian Institution, for example, which manages most of NASA’s artifacts, LM-15 is marked as “Scrapped,” suggesting its aerospace-grade aluminium was cut up and sold or reused. The same page makes a distinction from this, describing LM-14 as “Not Used (mission cancelled).”

Meanwhile, a NASA document titled “Apollo/Skylab ASTP and Shuttle Orbiter Major End Items” – a complete version of which Business Insider obtained from the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s archives – has a different description. Originally published in March 1978, the document describes itself in part as a “thumbnail historical reference” for NASA’s most prized hardware. It lists LM-14 and LM-15 as both “deleted” from the Apollo program, yet offers nothing else.

An historian at NASA told Business Insider he was “not sure about the disposition” of LM-14. A spokesperson for the Smithsonian said all that’s known about LM-14 is that it was cancelled and a stop work order issued in January 1970.

Josh Stoff, a curator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, said he thought part of LM-14 was incorporated into a model that sits in the backyard of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

However, Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute says no part of LM-14 is in the science museum’s artefact.

“It was made clear to us then that what we were receiving was nothing more than a fabrication model,” Pitts told Business Insider, adding that he spoke with Grumman engineers as they rolled the model off a flatbed truck in 1976. “It is not made of any kind of flight-grade material.”

Several experts told us it’s no surprise that clear and unambiguous documentation of either LM-14 (or LM-15) doesn’t exist – mainly because Grumman didn’t finish the spacecraft. As a result, neither NASA nor the Smithsonian ever took possession of the vehicles and carefully logged their whereabouts.

“We just don’t have any documentary records to speak of,”Mike Neufeld, a senior curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, told Business Insider.

Still, space historians are relatively certain what happened to the “missing” lunar module, even if they can’t definitively prove it with documents.

NASA’s last moon landers were probably Frankensteined into F-14 fighter jets

Rob Tabor/USAFAn F-14D Tomcat fighter jet flies over the Persian Gulf on November 5, 2005.

Robert Pearlman, a space historian who runs the space-history publication CollectSpace, said he thinks both spacecraft are no longer with us.

“My understanding is that LM-14 was only partially assembled when the Apollo program ended and ultimately, its parts were scrapped,” he previously told Business Insider.

Neufeld agreed with this, adding he’s “certain” the spacecraft were never completed and that their construction was halted at a very early stage.

“LM-15 hardly existed. It hardly had any components built up,” Neufeld said. “There’s little doubt that LM-14 went away and was junked.”

Fjeld, who’s helped restore the space-grade LMs still on Earth, whole-heartedly concurred with these assessments.

“I would almost bet the life of my son – I’d bet a lot of money, I’d bet my house – that they just scrapped it,” Fjeld said of LM-14. “That’s just what they did. Nobody felt any wonderful warm feelings about it. They [the workers] were losing their jobs, they were done with the program.”

Lunar module lm 14 15 lm14 lm15 grumman work chart paul fjeld labelledPaul FjeldPart of a Grumman flight history chart detailing the progress on NASA’s lunar modules 14 and 15.

To back this up, Fjeld sent Business Insider a Grumman flight history chart that he noted is “is extremely accurate based on my research that corroborates many dates.” According to the chart, Fjeld believes LM-14 was perhaps 1% to 5% complete before workers started cutting it up for scrap.

What’s more, he says, around the time NASA cancelled work on Apollo, Grumman was building brand-new fighter jets for the US military – the F-14 Tomcat – and so it probably worked lunar-module metal into those aircraft.

“I’m gonna say they would have said, ‘Look, we’ve got a bunch of F-14s that are just starting to come off the line here. This is what’s the future for Grumman. We need all the metal that we can get,'” he said. “‘Can we use that on F-14s?’ ‘Sure.'”

Still, Fjeld couldn’t promise that some element of LM-14 isn’t out there, somewhere, in its original form.

“I can’t guarantee that some guy didn’t just drive it off the lot and it’s now sitting in his basement or up in an attic that his grandkids have no idea what the hell it is,” he said. “Who knows?”

Watch a video about our search for LM-14 below:

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