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Viewpoint: Mars now home to a Lincoln cent

The earth, home to everybody who has ever lived, has one less penny, or more correctly one less one cent piece, that will never be recovered or brought back to this beautiful blue marble. That is because that penny now lies on the surface of the fourth planet, Mars!

It left the confines of the Earth’s gravitational pull attached to the robotic arm of the car-sized rover named Curiosity that was aboard a spacecraft headed for Mars. Back on Saturday, Nov. 26, 201, at 10:02 Eastern Standard Time, aboard an Atlas V rocket, this one cent piece started its long journey of about 110 million miles and reached the red planet’s surface early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2012.

The one cent piece, along with color references and other calibration devices, was included on a plaque that was attached to the Curiosity vehicle for use as a calibration target. NASA researchers will use this plaque when shooting photos of Mar’s service and that is where our beloved Lincoln cent comes into play.

Photographers often place an object like a person or car or something of known size into a scenic picture so the scale of the surrounding area can be better visualized. The same technique works for smaller objects on a reduced scale. Geologists often use the penny as a reference in close-up photographs of rocks found here on Earth, so why not use the same technique there on Mars? Just about everybody in the United States will immediately recognize the size of this coin and will be able to compare it to other elements in the same image that are beamed back to Earth. It is really a simple and ingenious technique.

Besides sending this little coin to another planet, what I find as interesting as the space program is exactly what penny they chose to send. Perhaps it is one of the most beloved and talked about coins, or pennies at least, a 1909 VDB one cent piece. The initials VDB belong to the designer Victor D. Brenner, and are located on the bottom of the reverse of the coin. These initials only appeared in this position on the coin the first year it was minted.

One Coin is Never Enough

Embrace the deeper motivations that urge us to seek out that special coin.

The very first Lincoln penny produced more then one hundred years ago had a mintage of 27,995,000 coins. This penny, which of course was minted for the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth came into production just as flight was in its infancy. Keep in mind that this particular Lincoln penny specimen is not one of the most valuable coins minted that year. The 1909-S VDB minted at the San Francisco Mint, with a mintage of only 484,000 coins, is far rarer than the coin that was sent to Mars. And of course there are other rarer and more sought after Lincoln cents out there that we have all read about over the years.

But, personally I think it is fitting that they chose the very first Lincoln penny that was released to the public. At the time, who could have imagined that one of these precious little coins would end up on another planet so far away, 100 years in the future?

This one cent piece is being touted on some websites as “The most expensive penny in the universe!” proclaiming it cost $2.5 billion to get it to the surface of Mars. Previously, the most expensive Lincoln penny in history was a 1943 copper alloy cent that was sold for $1.7 million in a 1996 auction.

Their facts many be a little obscured as the $2.5 billion also got a lot more stuff to the red planet than this lone penny. The funds allowed a truly remarkable spacecraft to successfully land on Mars to conduct many years of scientific research. Someone mentioned that the weight of the penny, 2.5 grams cost NASA an additional $7,000 to take it for the ride. It certainly isn’t the most expensive coin in the universe, but maybe it is the most expensive coin in outer space!

However, this coin was not the only coin ever taken into space. In 1961 Gus Grissom took a bunch of Mercury dimes aboard his Mercury capsule, named the Liberty Bell 7. Some people believe that a tech actually stowed them aboard the craft. The space flight only lasted a little over 15 minutes. After splashdown the emergency bolts exploded unexpectedly and blew the hatch off, causing water to flood into the spacecraft. Grissom was saved, but the capsule and the dimes sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1999, divers went down and recovered the spacecraft and several of the Mercury dimes. I have researched but I get conflicting information about how many coins were actually recovered. Some websites say as few as three coins were brought to the surface, and some say up to 52 were recovered. As to their true worth today, no one really knows, as NASA does not permit the sale of mementos from a spacecraft, numismatic or otherwise. But my guess is that something of that nature would fetch a “pretty penny” if it ever did go up for auction.

Thanks to Ken Edgett, who is the principal investigator with Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, Calif. He was the one who picked out and purchased this penny with his own money in order to have it on board the spacecraft for its fantastic journey. He also was the one who decided what measuring tools were placed aboard this craft. I don’t know if he is a coin collector or has any interest in numismatics at all, but I have to thank him for picking a really interesting and special item, and for sending a coin where no coins have gone before!

There are questions about what will eventually happen to this semi-key coin in the Lincoln series. What will the Martian environment do to the coin over the next year? What will it do in years to come? Will it change color? Will it become rainbow toned? Will it dissolve or become extremely pitted in the harsh Martian atmosphere or could it possibly remain unchanged?
I am not sure if Edgett or any of the scientists or engineers actually know. Perhaps they can hypothesize, but I know it will be interesting to see what will happen to a truly alien coin over time as it rest on another planet.

Who would have thought that Mr. Lincoln himself, or at least is likeness would be the first to visit another planet. I am assuming this great man who had great wisdom, never dreamed of such an event. But I believe that it is only fitting that our one cent piece bearing the likeness of one of our greatest presidents, is the first to be placed on another world. It most likely will stay there forever, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if someday they can go to Mars, retrieve this marvelous coin, and auction it off. Then I truly believe it will be the most expensive coin in the universe!

But for now, it is doing a great service for the space program, just sitting there in the elements on another planet. Kudos to the space program for the use of a numismatic item to explore a strange new world.

This Viewpoint was written by Philip Lo Presti of East Meadow, N.Y. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send email to david.harper@fwmedia.com.

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