50 Years Ago NASA Placed a Car on the Moon


Dave Scott wasn’t about to keep walking past an interesting rock. It was July 31, 1971, and he and his Apollo 15 astronaut friend Jim Irwin were the first people to go to the moon. After a 6-hour inaugural cruise on the new moon rover, the two were making their way back to their land Falcon when Mr. Scott made an unscheduled pit stop.

To the west of a crater called Rhysling, Mr. Scott blasted off the rover and quickly picked up a black lava rock filled with holes created by seeping gas. Mr. Scott and Mr. Irwin had been trained in geology and knew that a sample of loamy rock would be valuable to scientists on Earth. They also knew that if they asked permission to stop and get it, the watch-watching task managers would say no. So Mr. Scott made up a story that they stopped the rover because he was playing with his seat belt. The specimen was discovered when the astronauts returned to Earth, Mr. Scott described what he had done, and the “Seatbelt Rock” became one of Apollo 15’s most valuable geological finds.

Like many lunar specimens returned to Earth by recent Apollo missions, Seat Belt Rock would never have been collected had the astronauts not brought a chariot with them. Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 are the NASA lunar missions that tend to be most vividly remembered. But on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 15, launched on July 26, 1971, some space enthusiasts, historians, and writers credit the lunar rover as one of the most enduring symbols of the American lunar exploration program.

Foldable, durable, battery-powered, and manufactured by Boeing and General Motors, the vehicle is seen by some as making the final three missions to the crowning achievement of the Apollo era.

“Every mission in the crewed space program, dating back to Alan Shepherd’s first flight, was laying the groundwork for the last three Apollo missions,” said Earl Swift, author of a new book on lunar rover.Against Airless Wilds: Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Last Moon Landings

“You see NASA taking and applying all this wisdom gathered in space over the previous decade,” Mr. Swift said. “It’s a much more wasteful kind of science.”

When Neil Armstrong’s small step satisfied the geopolitical goals of the Apollo Project, NASA emphasized science, said Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collections at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. While the first lunar hikers took samples near their landing sites, scientists had long hoped for a lunar voyage that promised rare rocks. A lunar rover plan was greenlit just two months before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon.

While lunar cars have been dreamed up for years, driving on the moon is more complicated than it seems. Throughout the 1960s, engineers worked on a variety of concepts: tank-like tracked vehicles, flying cars, or even, as Mr. Swift describes it, “a round monster-shaped like an overgrown Tootsie Pop with a spherical cabin atop a single long cabin. mounted on a caterpillar foot. ” Finally, a car-like buggy came out on top.

“There were other weird ideas, like the pogo stick or the motorcycle — things I’m glad they didn’t pursue,” Ms Muir-Harmony said. “The moon rover is relatively practical in some ways.”

The lunar car was also essentially American. The rover’s exposed chassis, umbrella-like antenna and wire wheels meant it was unlike any other car on Earth, but its connection to the American auto industry and the nation’s love affair with the automobile caught the public’s attention like nothing since Apollo 11, Ms. – said Harmony.

Beginning with Project Mercury in the 1960s, a Florida car dealer allowed astronauts to rent Chevrolet cars for $1, which was later sold to the public. The Apollo 15 crew chose red, white, and blue Corvettes. A Photo spread in Life magazine Ms Muir-Harmony said the astronauts posed with iconic American muscle cars next to the moon car, making the moon rover look cool by the association. “There is so much to unpack in this painting,” he added.

Mr. Irwin and Mr. Scott helped build the excitement when they and the rover reached the moon. On the second day of the mission, the astronauts went to a crater called Spur, where they found a large white crystalline rock; this was one type of mineral on geologists’ wish lists as it could provide clues as to the origin of the moon.

The astronauts could hardly contain their joy: “Oh, boy!” Mr. Scott shouted. “Look at the glow!” said Mr Irwin. “Guess what we just found?” Mr. Scott radioed to Earth as Mr. Irwin laughed merrily. “Guess what we just found! I think we found what we came for.”

The white rock was later named Genesis Rockbecause scientists initially thought it was based on the formation of the moon.

Ms. Muir-Harmony said the excitement of the astronauts and their cars brought the Apollo missions back to Earth. “Even as the exploration of the moon became increasingly complex and complex to follow, it provided a point of access.”

Mr. Swift notes that at the time some news reports considered the rover “an inevitable, almost comical product of most automotive people in the world”, but there was nothing inevitable about this extraterrestrial horseless carriage.

To travel with the astronauts instead of using a separate rocket, the rover had to weigh less than 500 pounds, but had to carry twice that in human and geological cargo. On the Moon, it had to work in temperature fluctuations of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit between sunlight and shadow; can withstand abrasive moon dust and micro-meteorites that move faster than bullets; and cover a sharp, uneven surface with mountains, craters, loose gravel and dust. GM and Boeing engineers struggled to finish their designs in time for the final Apollo missions, under threats that NASA would cancel the rover program before it even left the ground.

​“A rover would not exist at all if it weren’t for a few engineers at General Motors,” Mr. Swift said in an interview.

He also explains in his book that immigrant engineers such as Mieczyslaw Gregory Bekker, who grew up in Poland and Ferenc Pavlics, who was born in Hungary, persevered despite huge budget overruns, tight deadlines, and technical difficulties. While astronauts tend to be the center of attention, Mr. Swift said engineers played groundbreaking roles in the space program, and some, like Mr. Bekker and Mr. Pavlics, highlighted the impact of immigrants on American innovation.

“America’s race to reach the moon, both at NASA and at the aerospace companies that make the hardware, was based on the minds and talents of immigrants—Americans who started their lives elsewhere,” he wrote.

Once the rover arrived and the astronauts landed it on the moon, the driving experience was also unexpectedly bizarre. The astronauts compared it to other Earth vehicles: Mr Irwin said the car rose and fell like a “divorced bronco,” and Mr Scott said it fished like a speedboat when it tried to spin at a high speed of 6 miles per hour.

Mission managers planned that the rover would only travel as far as the astronauts could walk, in case something happened, and they had to return it to their spacecraft. But the Apollo crews covered greater distances on each mission as NASA’s confidence grew. When the astronauts left the moon, the rovers stayed at their landing sites, collecting dust and cosmic rays. Spacecraft orbiting the moon occasionally take pictures, and in some images, traces of wanderers appear.

Barbara Cohen, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who studied the samples, said that astronauts found more interesting rocks and got scientists to ask different kinds of questions. The rover also said it allows astronauts to focus more on science than worrying about running out of oxygen or other consumable resources.

He recalled participating in a NASA analog mission a few years ago where scientists wore spacesuits and experimented on a station in the desert as if they were on the moon or Mars. He recalled that the participants were preparing to collect a sample and were interrupted by mission controllers who wanted to check their vitals.

“We were like, ‘Come on,'” she recalled. “This got me back home thinking that geology wasn’t just responsible. This is one of the things the rover does for you; it allows asking different science questions that can be further answered at specific sites.”

Genesis Rock, a mineral dating to the first days of the moon, was discovered by Dr. It exemplifies Cohen’s view. Scientists are still debating – fervently – how was the moon and there, and accordingly, what were conditions like here on Earth for the first billion years.

Dr. Cohen is among several scientists preparing to open the intact specimens that have been sealed since they returned home during the Apollo 17 mission. He will examine the noble gases in the samples to understand how solar radiation affects the lunar dust.

Katherine Burgess, a geologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, will examine intact samples to measure how radiation from the solar wind affects hydrogen and helium levels in lunar dust. The spacecraft can detect helium on the moon from orbit, but scientists still don’t know how it changes in lunar terrain. “Without these examples to confirm, it’s still an open question,” he said.

Future missions could use lunar helium, specifically a variant called helium-3, as a fuel source for nuclear reactors. This means that the next generation of lunar rovers could be powered by a material that the first generation detected half a century ago.

Even as scientists study these original specimens, many are hoping for a new batch, sent home with a new generation of astronauts or collected by rovers derived from the original version. General Motors in May announced A partnership with Lockheed Martin to build a new rover for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send American astronauts back to the Moon this decade.

Although built decades apart and by different teams, the lunar rover program has informed the first generation of Mars rovers, specifically the Sojourner, the first vehicle on another planet. Mr. Swift said engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the Mars rovers are built, have designed six-wheeled, flexible-frame rovers similar to early GM designs. “I think you found an inspiring lineage in this early GM study,” he said.

Science drives today’s NASA more than geopolitics, but the space agency still promotes and conducts human space travel for reasons that go beyond rock exploration. Ms Muir-Harmony said Apollo’s moon rovers and their modern successors embody this sense of adventure.

“Science is a very important result of Apollo, but it is important to understand what the public is preoccupied with. “The attraction of the lunar rover depends on the appeal of human space flight, which can witness their joy and indirect sense of participation,” he said.

Plus, it’s hard to resist the adventure of crossing the Moon, the greatest voyage of all time.

“Samples and materials from the moon do not attract public attention,” he said then and now. “It’s the vehicle.”


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