It’s December 11, 1972, and Houston has a problem. The lunar rover on the Apollo 17 mission, LRV-3, has lost its right rear fender. Not a huge deal on earth, but on the moon, it’s potentially catastrophic. Fenderless driving kicks up a flume of lunar regolith that coats the rover’s navigation and communication instruments in fine, wave-blocking silt. It’s a silt that insinuates itself into the aluminum rings that hold the astronauts’ helmets and gloves in place, and it can’t be wiped off.
NASA comes up with a solution: Take four laminated pages from the survey maps, tape them together into a 15-by-10½-inch slat, and marry that piece to the shorn fender. It works. Outer-limit engineering fixed with tape.
This story originally appeared in Volume 8 of Road & Track.
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As the alphanumerics imply, the LRV-3 was NASA’s third lunar rover. It was, in its most utilitarian sense, a tool for collecting geological samples. But in another, it was a perilous transport to the edge of the knowable. The rockets may have taken us to the moon, but the rovers allowed us to interrogate it.
In his meticulously researched and masterfully written new book, Across the Airless Wilds, Earl Swift tells the story of the lunar-vehicle program from its inception in the mind of ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun to the three rover excursions.
It is unfair to suggest that challenges facing the lunar-rover program were as steep as those posed by a lunar landing itself, but they were not insignificant. NASA had to come up with an electric vehicle that could report back to our planet, withstand extreme temperatures (plus or minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit), operate in one-sixth gravity, fold up into and deploy from the tiny moon lander, and traverse unknown lunar terrain.
NASA put the contract out for bids, and the job went to Boeing. General Motors became the major subcontractor based in part on its wire-mesh wheel design. One somewhat hilarious thing detailed in Swift’s book is NASA’s frustration with Boeing and GM. NASA worked to the very highest standards of testing, engineering, and process, predicated on the reputational and human risks posed by its missions. Boeing worked to slightly laxer standards, in keeping with the only marginally less dire stakes it encountered in its usual course of business. GM, on the other hand, worked to the safety standards of the Corvair.
Despite the development period’s many thrown slide rules and dislodged pocket protectors, the partners delivered the first lunar rover just 22 months after the project got the green light. It would cost the taxpayers $38 million, roughly a quarter of a billion dollars in today’s money.
Apollo 15 held the first rover, LRV-1, in its lander. After four days of space travel to get up to the Hadley Rille, astronauts David Scott and James Irwin drove LRV-1 a total of 17.25 miles over three excursions. Dave and Jim’s first drive, of 6.3 miles, surpassed all previous missions’ travels combined.
On their next jaunt, they hit pay dirt—a nugget of four-billion-year-old white anorthosite dubbed Genesis Rock. From Swift’s book: This “was the consummation of all the missions that had come before. . . . Until now, most missions had been built around testing equipment and sorting out procedures. Apollo 15’s moonwalkers were conducting real science.”
We left three cars on the moon. But this is no space junk, no off-loaded, off-brand detritus from a pot-metal superpower. This is Grade A American equipment. The LRVs are what NASA decided to create when its moonshots had grown prosaic to the American public and perhaps even to itself. The rovers were the moonshot’s moonshot.