A Hidden Gem at a Government Auction – REWIND

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Originally released November 14, 2022. A recent government auction listed a “1989 Airstream Executive Air Coach” with little to no details about its history. Internet sleuths soon discovered that the RV was an important part of space exploration history!

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The Cobra Effect

You can find some wild stuff for sale at government auctions. For instance, a software engineer found a government auction for a 4,000 lb IBM server. He now owns it and it’s so big it takes up most of his studio apartment. As a software engineer, he was familiar with the server and knew that when it came out, it cost over a million dollars. He snagged it for 1,000.

Most of the items being sold at government auctions are pretty boring. Laptops, chairs, projectors, empty cases, filing cabinets. But every once in awhile, there’s one that stands out. Like the time the Coast Guard auctioned a defunct lighthouse in Wisconsin. A San Francisco tech executive bought it for $159,000. Or the Sea Shadow. It was a top-secret Stealth Ship that was auctioned back in 2012. I can’t believe they’d allow that to be sold. It was going to be scrapped, but instead they auctioned it off with strict guidelines as to how it needed to be demilitarized and dismantled. So they were selling it to someone else with explicit instructions that the buyer scraps it. It sold for more than $100,000 to the Bay Ship and Yacht Company. Some of these sites are govdeals.com, govplanet and GSAAuctions.gov.

The story we’re talking about today was a listing that seemed pretty unremarkable at first glance. The heading on the listing was: “1989 Airstream Executive Air Coach.” It said “ran when parked,” but also the auction does say that the buyer will need a flatbed and a wench to remove it. Its location was listed at Edwards, California, but other than that, the only hints as to the history of this vehicle came in the pickup instructions and contact person. It was being stored at a NASA Research Station. From the photos, it was clear this wasn’t merely a recreational vehicle. The side of the vehicle showed a spot where a logo had been removed – very obviously the NASA logo. And the top was outfitted with all sorts of equipment, weather vanes and data gathering sensors. The odometer showed only 8,199 miles.

As the bidding rose to $14,000 on this RV, a user on Twitter, McCallister Higgins noticed the auction and started looking into the origin of this particular airstream. Higgins is an engineer who specializes in robotics and drones. He said “OK, I’M NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO BUY AND RESTORE THIS DUE TO LOGISTICS SO I FIGURED I’D THROW IT UP ON TWITTER. LONG STORY SHORT, I FOUND THE @NASA CONVOY COMMAND VEHICLE FOR THE SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM UP FOR AUCTION, WITH ALMOST ZERO INDICATION OF WHAT IT IS”

Whoa. A Convoy Command vehicle? Higgins started proving it by finding photos of the vehicle in action during its lifetime and comparing them with the photos on the listing. He combed through 20 or 30 videos of Shuttle landings and was able to match the vehicle in those videos. Finally, he found a photo of George Grimshaw. Grimshaw was a Space Shuttle Landing and Recovery Site Manager who worked for NASA until his retirement in 2015. In this photo, Grimshaw is sitting at a mobile command station inside a vehicle on the tarmac of a runway. And from the windows to the seats, you can clearly see it’s the same vehicle. So what is it? What is a NASA Convoy Command vehicle?

From 1981 to 2011, a total of 135 Space Shuttle Missions were flown. The shuttle was designed to be a partially reusable low earth orbital craft and as I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, it was THE symbol of space travel. The shuttle was used to launch tons of satellites, but mostly conducted a wealth of science experiments in space and even led the construction and servicing of the International Space Station. The first shuttle flight was the Columbia on April 12, 1981 and the final flight was the Atlantis on July 21, 2011.

The shuttle program was retired for a few reasons, but the biggest reason was the cost. It was MUCH more expensive than they originally planned. Each launch had an average cost of around $450 million. And the entire concept of the Shuttle was to eliminate the wasteful practice of discarding expensive rockets on each launch. It didn’t achieve that goal. While the shuttle craft was reusable, the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank would be lost each launch. And there’s the business aspect of it. Companies who wanted to pay the government to launch satellites with the Space Shuttle couldn’t afford it. They found it was cheaper to build their own rocket and launch it themselves. And the turnaround to get the orbiter back in space after landing was just too long.

Then there was the issue of safety. The Challenger explosion opened NASA’s eyes to the real danger of Space Shuttle missions – especially during a time when spaceflight had become so commonplace, we were starting to experiment with this idea of non-astronaut civilians flying to space. But it was the Columbia disaster 17 years later that really got NASA thinking about how unsafe the flights were. Wing damage from falling insulation was unpredictable and had happened during several flights – it was the thing that caused the Columbia disaster. The cancellation of the space shuttle program was announced by President George Bush in 2004 and the last flight happened in 2011. For the next 9 years, American astronauts used Russian rockets to get to the ISS. Basically until Space X in 2020.

So let’s get back to this vehicle – the 1989 Airstream RV. As we talked about, McCallister Higgins on Twitter discovered that it was a NASA Space Shuttle Command Convoy Vehicle. And furthermore, it served as that command vehicle for 54 missions.

The Command Convoy for the Space Shuttle was a group of 3 or 4 vehicles that supported the Space Shuttle during its landing. This particular vehicle was the lead vehicle in the convoy at Edwards Air Force Base, which was the backup runway for the craft to land on. And even so – it still ended up being used for 54 missions. The team that coordinated the convoy and communicated with the NASA Shuttle recovery team operated from within this RV. It was the base for the Convoy Commander. It was fitted with weather instruments, communication tools and computers so that the operators could look out the side windows as a sort of mobile command unit. It was replaced with a newer command vehicle and sat in a lot at Edwards Air Force Base until finally being auctioned in 2022.

The communications equipment had been stripped from the inside. The NASA logo was pulled off the outside. And it no longer ran. But once people started getting wind of what it was, it drove the bidding up to $21,061. The winner of the RV was kept anonymous, so now nobody knows where it is. It could be scrap. It could be sitting behind a barn somewhere. Or it could be in some obscure museum in the middle of nowhere.

But I will tell you for certain – if you’re like me, you heard this story and we all did the same thing. We ran to those government auction sites to see what other hidden treasures we could find.  

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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