How NASA Didn't Drive on the Moon

The Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle, the LRV or Moon Buggy. Photo Credit: NASA

When President Kennedy promised the United States a Moon landing by the end of the decade in 1961, he presented more challenges than just figuring out the logistics of getting to the Moon. The astronauts would have to get out and walk around; no one wanted to go all that way and just look out a window. A vehicle to take them further across the surface was also prudent to make the most of their brief stays. As part of the Apollo program, NASA considered a wide variety of lunar roving vehicles, only one of which was ever built. 

The idea of astronauts traveling across the Moon in vehicles didn’t originate from the practical needs of the Apollo program — moon cars hovering over the surface were a science fiction staple — but real applications did generate more realistic vehicles. In the mid 1950s, Collier’s magazine published a series of articles outlining Wernher  von Braun’s ideas of spaceflight. Man Will Conquer Space Soon! introduced readers to the idea of a six-week long mission during which astronauts would travel the surface in three 10-ton tractors.

The lunar cover art from an issue of Collier's. Image Credit: Collier's/JSC

The realities of lunar missions scaled down von Braun’s big lunar roving ideas, namely the restriction of one Saturn V per lunar launch. In 1964, he presented a more plausible future of travel on the Moon in an article in Popular Science. The first men to land on the Moon would roam around in an open vehicle, but later missions would last longer and the astronauts would travel and live in larger, pressurized vehicles. For up to two weeks, they could drive around the surface in shirtsleeves, putting on their bulky spacesuits only when they needed to get out and move around. The mobile habitat was painted white in his mind’s eye to minimize its absorption of solar and cosmic radiation

The mobile habitat wasn’t just von Braun’s wishful thinking. In the mid 1960s, NASA began looking ahead at possible forms future lunar rovers would take and many were mobile laboratories. In 1967, Bellcomm Inc., a division of AT&T established in 1963 to assist NASA in its research, development, and overall documentation of systems integration within spacecraft, published a report of future possible lunar mobility systems.

Each built off the pieces that were at the time under development for Apollo. MOLEM, a third generation derivative of the Lunar Module, combined the lunar rover with the LM. The mobile unit could last in a restive state for up to 90 days before a crew of two astronauts arrive and move in for a maximum stay of 14 days. A similar proposal called the MOCOM brought an Apollo Command Module out of orbit and onto the lunar surface. It would dock onto and travel with a mobile base similar to the LM descent stage. Another proposal called the Local Scientific Survey Module, LSSM, was for a smaller mobile unit delivered to the Moon in the LM’s cargo bay. MOLAB, a moderate capacity mobile laboratory, was the favoured early proposal with complete studies done on its possible development, construction, and surface operations. Capable of sitting on the Moon in an unpowered state for up to six months before a crew arrived, it could provide a crew of two with living and working space for 14 days.

These methods shared a number of traits, notably the impressive size and weight to give the astronauts a livable, pressurized, climate-controlled environment for just two weeks. Mobile laboratories were comfortable but cumbersome. David Gordon Wilson, a mechanical engineer from MIT, came up with a simple solution. A self-proclaimed bike nut, he urged NASA in the 1960s to consider sending astronauts to the Moon with bicycles. Human power as he called it was more than adequate for lunar exploration, and these much smaller vehicles would take up far less space than some kind of car. But as we know from history, NASA stuck with the larger lunar rover, the open vehicle von Braun described as the first stage of lunar exploration in 1964.

Testing a lunar mini bike in a low gravity environment. Photo Credit: NASA

Wilson never abandoned his hope to see bicycles on the Moon. In a 1979 article in Time magazine, he advocated for a two-seated quadracycle that would have astronauts pedaling in tandem across the lunar surface if NASA ever returned men to the Moon.

It turns out that NASA did briefly consider sending its astronauts to the Moon with bicycles, electric mini-bikes to be exact. Information on these one-man vehicles is scarce, but a prototype was under development in 1969 for use on Apollo 15. It was a backup method in case the Lunar Roving Vehicle, the LRV colloquially known as the Moon Buggy, wasn’t ready in time for the mission’s launch. There was some talk about the mini bikes incorporated into later Apollo missions as well. But the LRV was ready and made its lunar debut carrying Dave Scott and Jim Irwin around the Hadley-Apennine region in 1971 and the last Apollo missions were cancelled. The closest the mini-bike ever got to space was prototype tests in a 1/6th gravity environment in 1969 in NASA’s Vomit Comet.

If NASA does return astronauts to the Moon, bicycles could be a good mode of transportation since they’re lightweight and don’t need any power. They would look strange with overlarge woven wire tires, huge fenders, big handles, and a wide seat to hold a space-suited astronaut just like on the LRV. But imagine the air an astronaut could get riding a moon bike over a crater’s rim. Maybe the next round of manned lunar exploration will feature the lunar X-Games.

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4 comments to How NASA Didn’t Drive on the Moon

  • Chris Cantrell

    Great article Amy! Congratulations on the new position, writing for AmericaSpace. I always love to hear “off-axis” stories from the history of spaceflight.

  • The bicycle ideas are interesting, although I wonder if the astronauts’ legs would have enough flexibility to make pedalling at any useful speed possible. I admit I haven’t got much of a sense of just how easy it is to move in them, though.

  • Norm Winski

    Why are you giving Von Braun so much credit? The only thing he did was the Saturn V. Abe Silverstein was the father of Apollo. Von Braun nearly brought the entire space program to a halt with his resistance to liduid hydrogen rocket engines and stalling progress on Centaur. Fortunetly, Silverstein took over Centaur and saved the US Space Program. By the way, it was Abe Silverstein,NASA’s first Director of Space Flight Programs, and dreamt up Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Feel free to contact me if you would like more information.