Back in January 2021, NASA announced that MLP-2, one of the three Mobile launch platforms that carried over fifty Apollo and shuttle missions was being demolished despite its historical importance because NASA quite simply had nowhere to put it.
Roll on to May 2023 and NASA announced that MLP-3 which was used for Apollo 8, Apollo 11, Skylab, and the final Shuttle mission STS-135 with the shuttle Atlantis and which could be argued to be of even more historical significance is to go pretty much the same way, that now leaves just MLP-1 as the sole survivor.
This raises a question, how many Apollo and possibly Space Shuttle artifacts should we save in whole and what has happened to those smaller items from the Apollo program?
To a lot of people who grew up with the Apollo and the Space shuttle, the demolition of MPL-2 and now MLP-3 seems like cultural vandalism but to others these are just rather large bits of mostly steel plate which served their purpose of carrying the Saturn 5 rockets and later the space shuttle from the Vehicle assembly building to the launchpad.
If we become attached to everything that carries the Apollo or shuttle name in some way shape or form and is associated with these famous projects then then we will have quite a lot of stuff to find homes for, and this is the very reason MLP-2 was and MLP-3 will be demolished.
NASA has looked to outside organisations like the Smithsonian. In Aug 2013 they sent out a request for Information to gauge the interest of commercial or government bodies to find a use for three nearly identical mobile launch platforms in support of either commercial launch activity, recycling or an alternative option that benefits the public such as a museum piece or some other use. However , they received no reply to the requests sent out for all or part of them.
The main problem is that they are very large, coming in at about 3700 tons and measuring 8m x 40m x 50m. Just moving them around needs the specially made crawler transporters which due to their own huge size let alone the extra weight of the MLP limits them to the Kennedy Space Centre and then on the specially constructed crawler ways.
NASA looked at placing MLP-2 at the VAB but due to the construction of the new ML-1 and the SLS rocket which was deemed to large for the existing MLPs, there would not be the parking space available to store it.
The next option was to park it at the launch pads but that would only be if the pads were not in use for launches, as soon as they were it would be in the way there too.
Another option was at the park it at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex to give the public access to it as a tourist attraction, trouble was that it would need extra work to make it safe for people, as there are lots of places in and on it were someone could get hurt so that was not deemed practical either.
Without a new permanent home, there was just one option left and that was for it to be broken up and recycled.
Now, MLP-3, unless it gets a last-minute reprieve will also be going to the scrappers, or more to the point they will be coming to it.
Other things to do with the launch hardware have been saved in the past. When the Space Shuttle took over from Apollo the Launch Umbilical towers were no longer needed. The LUTs from MLP-1 and MLP-2 were taken apart and parts from them were incorporated into the new Fixed Service Structures at Pad 39A and 39B.
The remaining LUT-1 from MLP-3 was taken apart and stored at the Kennedy Space Centres’ industrial area. During the 1990s, efforts to preserve it failed due to lack of funding.
However, the walkway and white room that the Apollo 11 crew used before entering the capsule were saved and relocated to the gift shop at Kennedy Space Centre for others to get a glimpse of what it would have felt like to start their historical journey to the moon. Another part of the 21 m walkway is also installed in the gift shop and crosses over the main floor.
This brings up the question of what else is out there and worth saving. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, spent a not inconsiderable sum in finding and retrieving some of the F-1 engines and other parts which turned out to be from Apollo 11, 12 and 16 that fell back into the Atlantic after launch.
They were found at a depth of 14,000ft, 4300m. Hitting the sea from almost 40 miles or 65km smashed much of the more fragile parts like the heat exchangers but the more solid parts like thrust chambers and turbines survived and were able to be identified by their serial numbers.
On one of the thrust chambers, the number 2044 was found which related to the NASA engine number 6044 which was used in engine number 5 on Apollo 11.
After almost 2 years of conservation work at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center were completed, they were transferred to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C and The Museum of Flight, Seattle, not far from Amazon’s headquarters and the offices of Blue Origin.
As for the monetary value of these items, it hard to say but when other much smaller items have gone to auction, they have fetched a lot of money.
The most valuable of almost anything Apollo-related is usually when it was from the Apollo 11 mission and if it had been on the moon then the price can go sky high.
Buzz Aldrin’s custom-fitted Jacket, which he wore during the Apollo 11 mission became the most valuable US space-flown artifact when it sold at auction on 24th July 2022, exactly 53 years after they splashed down back on earth.
It sold for $2,772,500 and was part of a sale of dozens of objects from Adrian’s space career but the Jacket fetched more than everything else though the total did reach $8 million.
Even some quite innocuous objects have fetched very large sums like Neil Armstrong’s sample return bag which he used to bring back moon rock and still had some dust left in it. This sold for $1,812,500 though it was never meant to have gone one sale.
NASA lent it to a space museum in Kansas after which it went missing. It was traced to the man who ran the museum who was convicted of theft and other related crimes. When officials retrieved it, they mixed it up with another bag that had not been to the moon and sold it at auction.
When the new owner checked its authenticity with NASA they realized the error and tried to stop the sale as it was of historical importance. The new owner refused to hand it over and made the tidy $1.8M sum when it sold in July 2017.
Sometimes it’s the story behind the object which makes it valuable like the watch Apollo 15 Commander David Scott wore.
All the astronauts that went to the moon were given Omega Speedmaster wristwatches but Scott also took a prototype Bulova Chronograph Wristwatch he had been given by the company as a backup.
To the commander, a wristwatch was invaluable, they had to time how long the crew was out on EVAs to know how much oxygen they had left. Bulova was an American company that had tried hard to get their watches on the Apollo missions without success.
On the second EVA of Apollo 15, Scott noticed that the glass front of his Omega was missing, so when he returned to the lander he swapped the strap onto the Bulova and used that for the rest of the mission.
This included driving in the Lunar Rover and repeating Galileo’s Hammer and Feather experiment. There was also some lunar dust on the strap when it came back to Earth. The estimate for the auction was $750,000 but it sold for $1,592,500.
Even something as mundane as a water dispenser/Fire Extinguisher that was used to dispense measured amounts of hot or cold water for drinking and rehydrating meals by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong during Apollo 11s stay on the moon, went for $327,600.
Like many things that have gained significant cultural importance, space artifacts are now like major pieces of art not only sort after by collectors but also investors because their price will only go up so long as there are enough rich people willing to buy them.
Hopefully, they can be collected or donated to museums so they can be enjoyed by not only the aging Apollo generation of nostalgic baby boomers but also the upcoming generations when space travel will be commonplace and they can look back and see how it was done with slide rules, sheer engineering genius and a sprinkling of luck.
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