Tire Tracks to Our Future: 40th Anniversary of NASA’s Lunar Rover

NASA sent three lunar rovers to the surface of the Moon during the Apollo Program. 2012 marked the anniversary of the final flight of one of these incredible machines. Photo Credit: NASA
NASA sent three Lunar Rovers to the surface of the Moon during the Apollo Program. 2012 marked the anniversary of the final flight of one of these incredible machines. Photo Credit: NASA

Amid the “best of” compilations which marked the end of 2012, December 14 slipped by with little celebration. That Friday morning marked the 40th anniversary of not only the final set of human footprints to be left on the surface of the Moon, but also the final tire tracks made by a wheeled vehicle driven by a human being across the face of another world. 

NASA’s Lunar Roving Vehicle was a product of the space agency at its finest, and it epitomized the spirit of Apollo. As Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan parked LRV-3 for the final time, he declared it to be “one of the finest running little machines” he’d ever had the pleasure to drive.  They were among the last words ever spoken on the lunar surface, and they marked the end of a story of the most exotic wheeled vehicle ever designed and built. For while these unique automobiles had wheels, they were in every other sense spacecraft, constructed out of high-spec aerospace materials to operate in the vacuum of space, on an extra-terrestrial landscape blanketed with abrasive dust.

The lunar rovers did not return to Earth with the Apollo astronauts. They remain on the lunar surface as beacons for future explorers. Photo Credit: NASA
The Lunar Rovers did not return to Earth with the Apollo astronauts. They remain on the lunar surface as beacons for future explorers. Photo Credit: NASA

It was the length of a Cadillac, yet for shipment to the Moon it was ingeniously designed to fold into a space the size of a family car trunk. Weighing in at less than a riding lawnmower, it would be required to carry twice its own weight in men, life support equipment, tools, samples, and a science kit. Its suspension system and tires would have to cope with a world where the gravity is only one-sixth as strong as Earth’s and whose intensely cratered surface would tax the most robust of all-terrain vehicles.

At the time of its development, when battery-powered vehicles were thought of as an oddity rather than an ambition, the concept of an electric lunar transportation system was as visionary as the Apollo Program itself.

A detailed account of the Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV appears in Haynes' Lunar Rover Owner's Workshop Manual. Photo Credit: Haynes Publishing
A detailed account of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, or LRV, appears in Haynes Lunar Rover Owner’s Workshop Manual. Photo Credit: Haynes

A wheeled vehicle was not necessary for a quick trip to the Moon. Without them Apollo would still have been an amazing chapter in human history. But the Lunar Rovers, complete with manuals packed with data on performance, tips for operation, and carefully conceived procedures for maintenance, were a statement about staying on the Moon; a vision for a long-term presence on a new world.

Engineered and constructed in a record time of just 18 months—the shortest development and manufacture of any major piece of Apollo hardware—three Lunar Roving Vehicles (LRVs) would eventually carry six men almost 100 kilometers across the lunar surface.

Reducing the exertion required for a Moonwalk, they would double both the amount of time the astronauts could spend exploring as well as the total weight of lunar samples that could be collected, maximizing the scientific value of the Apollo Program and returning the Rovers’ $38 million development costs many times over.

While this scientific legacy will long be remembered in academic journals, another great contribution of the Lunar Roving Vehicle to history is often overlooked.  Developing these vehicles had given the engineers at NASA unique insight into designing hardware for human spaceflight. Although the Rover was not as complex as a habitable space laboratory, it functioned as a small, extra-terrestrial workstation, with similar crew requirements. The knowledge and experience gained in its development was later applied to the design of crew systems for projects like Skylab, Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station.

The Lunar Rovers’ legacy reaches far beyond Earth orbit, too, into the engineering systems of a new generation of advanced robotic exploration rovers, designed to traverse more distant planetary surfaces. From their dead reckoning and semi-autonomous navigation capabilities to their metal wheels and stereo cameras, they have all used technology derived from Moon vehicle research conducted in the 1960s and ’70s.

Forty years after the last LRV was left on the Moon, their wheeled descendants are today cruising across Mars, carrying the spirit of human exploration over the next horizon.

This feature is based on an extract from a new book on the Lunar Rover, published by Haynes, entitled: Lunar Rover Owner’s Workshop Manual

Photo of Dr. Christopher Riley provided by author for use by AmericaSpaceWriter, broadcaster, and filmmaker Dr. Christopher Riley has worked in the field of public engagement in science for over 15 years. He moved to BBC television in 1997 to work as series researcher for their landmark series “The Planets.” He co-presented the BBC’s 1999 total eclipse coverage and their 30th anniversary celebrations of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing that year. He helped direct and produce the documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon,” winner of the 2007 Sundance World Cinema Audience Award. In 2008, he helped produce and direct the award-winning series “Moon Machines.” These are just some of the many space-related film projects that Riley has been involved with over the years. He has just finished a new biopic on Neil Armstrong, which is scheduled to air in the U.S. this year. Riley is also a writer and co-authored the Apollo 11 Owner’s Workshop Manual, as well as the Lunar Rover Owner’s Workshop Manual pictured above. AmericaSpace was introduced to Riley by Lunar Rover Owner’s Workshop Manual co-author, W. David Woods.

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  1. An excellent overview of a truly remarkable machine. There is a documentary series, “Moon Machines,” (referenced above in the bio regarding Chris Riley) that includes an episode discussing the development and use of the lunar rovers. This is a must-see episode!
    The benefits from the Apollo program are clearly evident not only in our day-to-day lives but also in the exploration of the planets (i.e., Mars rovers). We simply cannot afford to lose our leadership in the scientific exploration of space.

  2. Tom, the writer of this article – helped produce & direct both the ” Moon Machines” series as well as “In the Shadow of the Moon.”
    Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor AmericaSpace

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