The Off-Roading Astronauts of Apollo
The later moon missions didn’t grab as much attention as the first landing in 1969, but they had something very cool on the gear front: the lunar rover, a lightweight go-kart that gave crews unmatched mobility on another world
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Alas, Neil Armstrong.
After traveling nearly a quarter-million miles to reach the moon’s Sea of Tranquility in July 1969, the Apollo 11 astronaut didn’t get much time to look around. His space suit was pumped up like an all-season radial. Grasping tools exhausted his hands in minutes. From inside his helmet, he couldn’t see his own feet. And the effort required to lope stiff-legged across the powdery surface guzzled the air and cooling water in his backpack, limiting his time outside the relative safety of the lunar module.
So it was that in man’s first visit to another celestial body, Armstrong and his crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, covered very little ground; the farthest either ventured from the lander was when Armstrong embarked on an unscripted jog for last-minute pictures and rock samples—about 65 yards. All their travels would fit inside a football field, with plenty of room to spare.
The Apollo 11 crew earned an enduring place in the annals of exploration, and rightly so, not because of what they did on the moon, but because they were there, and there first. The courage it required, the precision it demanded, and the sheer boldness of the undertaking thrilled the world. The names of Erikson, Peary, and Henson have likewise stayed with us. Amundsen and Cook. Magellan. Marco Polo.
But the fact is, the greatest achievements of America’s lunar adventure came later, when people were no longer hanging on every word the moonwalkers spoke or following every step they took, on missions that were given comparatively little notice at the time and are recalled dimly today.
It wasn’t until the fourth moon landing, two years after Apollo 11, that NASA supplied an Apollo crew with the tools it needed to take real advantage of its presence amid the “magnificent desolation” of that forbidding, airless environment: A beefed-up lunar module capable of supporting three full days on the regolith. Redesigned backpacks that supplied air, water, and power for longer explorations. And the most transformative equipment of all, a spindly aluminum go-kart that folded like a business letter to fit inside the lander and weighed all of 78 pounds in the moon’s one-sixth gravity.
Its tires were made of wire mesh. Its seats looked like beach chairs. Its four electric motors together managed just one horsepower. Its floorboard was one-fiftieth of an inch thick, about the same as the slimmest wood veneers, and would snap under an astronaut’s weight on Earth. Yet the lunar rover—or, in NASA parlance, the lunar roving vehicle, or LRV—upended all expectations of what was possible in a brief visit to another world.
“They were looking at how could the astronauts get the most bang for the buck—in getting around, in picking things up, in exploring,” says Saverio “Sonny” Morea, who oversaw the project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “A car came up pretty fast.”
A couple of seconds passed before he added: “Though it’s not a car. It’s really a spacecraft.”