17Dec2011

Stolen Space Treasures Rescued From Auction.

The identification badges of three astronaut heroes who were killed in the line of duty. Heat-shielding tiles plucked from the space shuttle orbiters. A humongous rocket engine.

Those are some of the items stolen by space workers who apparently tried to sell them, through a friend or via auction houses or websites like eBay. The crimes were foiled by agents working for NASA’s Inspector General, the taxpayer-watchdog arm of the nation’s space agency.

Over the course of the last half year, they’ve also identified and tried to suggest fixes to problems that led to the waste of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, put astronauts or other space workers in danger or threatened the security of critical computer systems at NASA sites across the country.

But it’s the theft of space artifacts and hardware that jump out of the public records documenting the inspector general agents’ work. Times are tough and perhaps no tougher than for space agency workers trying to find a way to transition to new lives, either as part of the downsized program or in new jobs.

But it’s troubling to read some of the stories outlined by the inspector general about swiped space stuff. Consider just these few:

A former top security official at the Kennedy Space Center kept secret for 44 years the fact that he, somehow, had secured the identification badges of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White, the three astronauts who died in a fire during a pad test at the beginning of the Apollo moon shot program. Their sacrifice at the Cape that day helped pave the way for the eventually successful Apollo moon landings, but also spurred exhaustive safety reforms throughout NASA that no doubt saved the lives of astronauts and space workers for decades to come. They definitely earned the moniker hero.

The badges are valuable collectibles apparently. The IG determined, with the help of auction experts, that they could have fetched anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 at sale. They clearly determined that the person who’d kept them hidden all these years intended to sell them “for monetary gain.”
In a story that got more attention when it happened, a shuttle contract worker was making far less by swiping heat-shielding tiles and auctioning them on eBay. By the time the inspector general’s office agents busted the scam, about 12 tiles had sold, but none for more than about $900.

Perhaps the most bizarre story, though, was this one: the mysterious appearance of an RL-10 rocket engine for sale. The inspector general’s office traced the item after it appeared in an advertisement on an online auction site. The seller told investigators the engine, which is of the type utilized in the upper stage of the Saturn moon rocket, was obtained from another person who had gotten it from an unidentified NASA worker.

The engine is a very valuable piece of machinery, valued at about $200,000, and one with historic prowess. It’s the United States’ first liquid-fueled rocket engine.

Perhaps more intriguing is its size, and the questions the incident raises about how someone could have somehow spirited away a 300-pound rocket engine, presumably from a guarded NASA facility.

It’s also considered a major security risk. The RL-10’s technology is governed by international trade laws aimed at preventing such capabilities from falling into the hands of potential enemies such as Iran. So it’s against the law to sell it or even give it away to the general public (let alone steal and fence it).

All told, reaching beyond just the thefts, Inspector General Paul Martin’s office is responsible for saving or recovering millions of dollars in taxpayer funds and perhaps spurring changes that could save more.  Source: FLorida Today

 

 

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