THE LIFE OF THE LUNAR ROVER

It’s the most expensive car ever made. The most complicated. The most overdeveloped. It’s the most alien (quite literally) a car has ever been. There’s no point dragging out this intro, you read the title; it is of course the Lunar Rover.

An artists impression of the Lunar Roving Vehicle

An artists impression of the Lunar Roving Vehicle

How do you design a car for an alien landscape you’ve never visited? As NASA discovered, nigh impossibly, yet in 1962 when President Kennedy declared the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA were tasked with creating a lunar rover. The concept of lunar transport predates the Apollo program and eventual implementation of a lunar rover by well over a decade, first conceptualised as large, tractor-like vehicles capable of sustaining life for weeks at a time; in essence, moon caravans. In 1964, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre began studies with Lockheed, General Motors, Boeing and Bell Aerospace among others into developing prototype lunar rovers. Initially it was planned to have two separate lunar landers, one to transport crew and another the rover and equipment, though as final development of the Saturn V was completed, these plans were scrapped, resulting in a single lunar lander and a need for a lightweight, compact rover.

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Apollo 16 astronauts in the Lunar Rover Earth Trainer

Apollo 16 astronauts in the Lunar Rover Earth Trainer

On October 28, 1969, only a couple months after Neil and Buzz’s small steps, Boeing were chosen to develop the Lunar Roving Vehicle for NASA, with General Motors producing the wheels, motors and suspension. With a manufacturer chosen, that still left the mammoth task of producing a car for an environment unknown to any of the engineers. With absolutely no room for error, the enormity of the task was compounded by the fact the first rover was due for delivery by April of 1971, giving the boffins at Boeing just 17 months to finish the project. In total Boeing produced four Lunar Roving Vehicles, or LRV’s, one each for the three Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17 and one spare for a cancelled Apollo mission, the rover in question being salvaged for parts. Total costs for the four buggies sat at $38 million, equivalent today to just north of $224 million, which broken down per vehicle, places a price tag of $56 million on each Lunar Roving Vehicle; you can forget your dime-a-dozen 250 GTO’s or Mercedes 300 SLR’s, the Lunar Rover is by far the most expensive car to ever exist, and that’s on production costs alone.

As a car, the Lunar Rovers were surprisingly down to earth; no pun intended. Power was fed to all four wheels by individual electric motors designed to work in low gravity, the four of which totalled at just 1 horsepower. Whilst this doesn’t sound like much, the rover weighed just over 200kg’s, which in one-sixth moon gravity is equivalent to a featherweight 35kg’s.

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For safety reasons, the LRV’s could only traverse within walking distance from the lander, though the rover was capable of travelling a total of 92km’s if driven conservatively, though with astronauts driving Corvette Stingray’s on Earth, it’s safe to say there was no ‘Christian Motoring’ at the wheel of the LRV’s. NASA quoted a top speed of the rover at 13km/h, though Eugene Cernan topped his out at 18km/h, giving him the unofficial lunar land speed record; what a legend.

As you’d expect, each component of the Lunar Rover’s were agonised over, hand-made to the most bespoke level. The wheels, developed by GM, consisted of hollow, spun aluminium hubs covered in titanium, adorned with the stark orange fender guards. Control was fed to the LRV by the driver not though a conventional steering wheel, but a space-aged joystick, operating exactly how you’d expect it to; front and back, left and right.

The broken fender replaced with a lunar map

The broken fender replaced with a lunar map

In total, three Lunar Rover’s flew, each finding use on Apollo 15, 16 and 17. Proving perfectly reliable, None of the LRV’s ran into any major malfunction in the four hours each Rover was driven for. The largest issue occurring when Eugene Cernan accidentally smashed off the rear fender of the LRV with a hammer handle, causing lunar regolith to be thrown all over the astronauts and controls. Cernan managed to MacGyver a replacement fender from a pair of clamps and lunar maps, a solution which worked perfectly; thank god for duct tape.

 We’ve all seen the footage of Apollo astronauts blasting off from the moon back to earth, filmed in a gorgeous panning shot as the lunar lander left the moon to re-join the command module. Of course, no astronaut could have filmed this, it was filmed by the camera mounted on that missions Lunar Rover, meaning sadly, the Rover’s were left on the Moon.  

No Lunar Roving Vehicles have returned to Earth. It’s rather sad to think the most incredible car ever made is no longer on Earth, each of the flown LRV’s still sitting pretty on their dusty little rock. Of course, the Rover’s were nothing more than tools, though they do stand as testaments to what NASA, GM and mankind achieved during the space race. Recent satellite flybys have confirmed all three of the Rover’s are still up there, meaning no intergalactic grand theft auto has been committed yet, though if NASA were to one day retrieve a Rover, and though it would never happen, if it were to cross the auction block, there’s no shadow of doubt it would become the most expensive car ever to change hands, bar none.

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 The moon has no atmosphere, so not only will the astronaut’s famous footsteps be preserved immortally, so will the three Lunar Rover’s. There colours will bleach from the intense radiation, though when this funny little rock we live on eventually keels over and not a trace of the automobile exists on it, humankind can still look up and remember that, once or twice, we really did drive a car on the moon.