Space Driver: The First Manned Vehicle On The Moon

Humanity’s love of driving extends to outer space. Fifty years ago the United States landed on the moon. A few years later they returned, this time with a set of wheels to traverse the terrain.

Known as the “Moon Buggy”, the Lunar Roving Vehicles played integral roles in multiple Apollo missions during the early ‘70s, allowing astronauts to traverse several miles from their landing site to collect samples and record video of the lunar landscape.These battery-powered, roofless two-seaters were short on creature comforts--though there was an armrest between the driver and passenger--yet were immense on ingenuity. Collapsible, the Moon Buggy’s three-piece chassis was hinged in the middle, allowing it to be conveniently folded up and hung alongside the Lunar Landing Module.

At 460 pounds, moon buggies were designed to hold a payload of 1,080 pounds.

Powered by a pair of 36-volt silver-zinc potassium hydroxide non-rechargeable batteries, the Moon Buggy had a maximum range of 57 miles. These batteries not only powered the drivetrain and steering motors, but also a 36-volt utility outlet mounted on the front of the buggy that ran the communications relay unit or television camera.

The longest single traverse by a moon buggy was 12.5 miles, and the longest total distance was 22.3 miles--both of these benchmarks were set during the Apollo 17 mission in December of 1972.

Engineering the moon buggy required years of intense study and preparation. Much of the work occurred at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and included experts from companies like Lockheed, General Motors, Bell Aerospace, Grumman, Brown Engineering and Boeing.

Though Boeing ultimately wound up getting the final contract to build the moon buggy, the Brown Engineering Company played a vital role in the lunar mobility efforts. In 1965, NASA picked the Huntsville, Alabama-based business as the prime support contractor for Marshall's Propulsion and Vehicle Engineering Laboratory.

Brown designed, built and tested a prototype vehicle that gave NASA crucial feedback on how astronauts in bulky spacesuits would interact with the rover’s power, navigation, life-support and telemetry equipment.

NASA selected Boeing as the prime contractor for the Moon Buggy on Oct. 28, 1969. Under the arrangement, Boeing would manage the project in Huntsville, Alabama, while General Motors would build the motor, wheels and suspension.

Boeing’s facility in Kent, Washington provided the proving grounds, as Boeing oversaw the installation of the Moon Buggy’s electronics and navigation system.

The Moon Buggy sat atop rugged, durable wheels inspired by Hungarian native Mieczysław Bekker’s idea of a wire-mesh construction. Bekker’s concept came about while designing an unmanned lunar rover for NASA at General Motors Defense Research Laboratories in Santa Barbara, California.

This concept for a “resilient wheel” was refined by GM’s Ferenc Pavlics, who provided the final that featured wheels with hubs of spun aluminum and tires with zinc-coated steel strands attached to the rim. Titanium arranged in a chevron pattern covered 50% of the tire’s contact area, enhancing traction.

An electric drive powered each individual wheel, enabling each wheel to independently free-wheel in case one malfunctioned. These electric drives only generated a quarter of horsepower, though that seemingly meager amount proved more than sufficient for Apollo Missions 15, 16 and 17.

Moon dust posed a challenge to engineers, as the debris could damage vital components. Mylar blankets were used to cover the radiators. When parking, astronauts would remove the mylar coverings and use hand brushes to get rid of excess dust.

NASA produced four flight-ready Lunar Rover Vehicles.Three of them were delivered to the moon and left behind, a reminder of man’s amazing exploration of the moon. Unfortunately, only the upper portions of lunar excursion modules could return to orbit, so lower portions of the vehicles are still on the moon to this day.

A fourth rover was set aside for spare parts following cancellation of the Apollo 18 mission.

No Lunar Rover Vehicle on display anywhere that went to the moon and returned to Earth. Any lunar rovers on display were either test/training vehicles or prototypes.

But NASA isn’t the only organization to put a vehicle with four wheels into space. In February 2018 Elon Musk included his personal 2008 Tesla Roadster among the payload of a test flight for SpaceX, his private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company based in Hawthorne, California. Musk’s sportscar is the only production vehicle that has been launched into outer space. 

Mission

Total Distance

Longest Single Traverse

maximum range from the Landing Module

Total 

Time

Apollo 15 (LRV-1)

17.25 miles

7.75 miles

3.1 miles (5.0 km)

3 h 02 min

Apollo 16 (LRV-2)

16.50 miles

7.20 miles

2.8 miles (4.5 km)

3 h 26 min

Apollo 17 (LRV-3)

22.30 miles

12.50 miles

4.7 miles (7.6 km)

4 h 26 min