GUY RAZ, host:
Speaking of urban legends, have you heard the story about the millionaire who bought the rights to an old Soviet moon rover that hasn't been seen since 1973? Actually the story is true. The man's name is Richard Garriott. And he bought the rover at an auction at Sotheby's in 1993.
Well, this past week, NASA released thousands of high-resolution images of the moon's surface. And at the University of Western Ontario, a geography professor named Phil Stooke started to examine a particular photo.
Professor PHIL STOOKE (Geography, University of Western Ontario): Immediately, what popped up was the tracks. The tracks of long, dark lines which the rover left as the rover end were immediately visible. So, the first thought is that if you just follow them to the end, you will find the rover sitting there.
RAZ: And indeed, he did. A teeny, tiny, grayish blob at the end of those tracks is the long lost Lunokhod 2 lunar rover.
The rover malfunctioned in 1973, about three months after the Soviets landed in on the moon. And it literally stopped dead in its tracks. And since then, scientists had the only the vaguest idea of where it might be, which brings us back to the rover's owner, Richard Garriott. He's a videogame developer, the son of an astronaut, and one of the very few people to travel to space as a private citizen.
He made a documentary about this trip. And coincidentally, it premiered this past week at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin.
Richard Garriott joins me from NPR in New York. Welcome to the program.
Mr. RICHARD GARRIOTT (Owner, Lunokhod 2 Lunar Rover; Videogame developer): Thank you very much. It's great to be with you here today.
RAZ: Okay, first of all, why did you buy a lunar rover in 1993 given that, A, it wasn't working anymore; and B, nobody knew where it was?
Mr. GARRIOTT: Well, it's funny I've gotten ask that question a lot back at the time that I was making the purchase. But I think people even then radically underestimated the interesting and historical aspects of that acquisition.
RAZ: Okay. Fair enough. How much did you pay for it?
Mr. GARRIOTT: I paid $68,500 for it.
RAZ: You paid $68,500 for a broken lunar rover on the surface of the moon.
Mr. GARRIOTT: That is absolutely correct. And, you know what's funny about that is I actually now think, as the years have gone by, I continue to think I got a better and better deal. It did already begin to allow me to say things like that I am now the world's only private owner of an object on a foreign celestial body. And I'm also the first person that has what you might call a private flag sitting on the moon that allows me to, you know, debate and discuss territorial rights.
RAZ: So your rover has now been located as we heard earlier. And a photograph shows this sort of grayish blob on the moon's surface. First of all, are you convinced - are you comfortable that it is what the scientists are saying it is?
Mr. GARRIOTT: Well, when I first heard this, that was the - my first question also was what was the level of reliability of this find. And so as soon as I saw this new data, I did my own kind of what I called just a recheck of the findings, and there's no question that they have the right target. And so, it's, yeah, unquestionably the right - my Lunokhod 2.
RAZ: Say, you know, you managed to, like, recover it or to get it back. What would you do with it?
Mr. GARRIOTT: Well, actually, the - I think its real value is not in being recovered and, for example, being put in the museum. Its real value is the fact that while there are international treaties that say no government will, like, claim to property off the planet Earth, international convention also says that if you're a private citizen who discovers a territory that is not claimed by another country already, any of that territory that you put to any use is yours.
My rover has traveled over 40 kilometers. It has tilled the soil or turned the soil with its wheels, and it has surveyed land as far as the eye can see - or as far as its cameras can see, to the left and right over that 40-kilometer swath. I believe I actually do have a foundation for legitimate claim of lunar property, and I'm the only one to do so.
RAZ: So you're like the Donald Trump of the moon?
Mr. GARRIOTT: So far no competitors.
RAZ: Are you hoping to actually get to the moon and somehow see your lunar rover there and the property you own on the moon?
Mr. GARRIOTT: Well, what's interesting about that is, you know, in 1993, when I made this acquisition, I thought the probability was as close to zero as would be reasonable to consider. The odds are conceivably greater than zero now. I mean, I wouldn't say they're high odds, but I'd like to, hopefully, at least get to see it from lunar orbit and perhaps even from on ground.
RAZ: That's Richard Garriott. He's, among other things, the only person to own an object on a celestial body other than Earth: the Soviet Lunokhod 2 lunar rover, which scientists manage to identify this week after it hadn't been seen for 37 years.
Richard Garriott, thanks for joining us.
Mr. GARRIOTT: My pleasure. Thank you.