From People on Wheels to People and Wheels on the Moon: The Automotive Lunar Explorers

Jim Irwin works with the lunar rover, backdropped by the grandeur of Hadley, in July-August 1971. Photo Credit: NASA
Jim Irwin works with the lunar rover, backdropped by the grandeur of Hadley, in July-August 1971. Photo Credit: NASA

Chrysler, Delco, Ford, and General Motors are hardly the sort of names—at first glance—that might be associated with Project Apollo, the grandest and boldest adventure of exploration in human history. Since the dawn of the last century, all four have contributed enormously to putting people on wheels, on the soil of terra firma, and enabled automotive technology to emerge from the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and influential to the playthings of the many. Today, Chrysler, Ford, and GM remain the “Big Three” U.S. automotive companies, producing millions of cars, trucks, and SUVs annually, and although Delco no longer exists as an operating company GM continues to own the rights to its name and uses it for subsidiaries. Almost five decades ago, this quartet was involved at an intimate level with launching, guiding, controlling, and driving the first men on the Moon.

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Today, one of the most visible and tangible remnants of that involvement sits quietly in the foothills of one of the Moon’s great mountain chains—the Apennines, whose peaks rise to four miles or more—at a place called “Hadley.” The site was recognized to be of immense scientific importance, with some of the most ancient lunar terrain ever sampled, the meandering gorge of Hadley Rille, the 2.5-mile tall peak of Hadley Delta … and, in the opinion of Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott, one of the grandest and most scenically spectacular patches of the Moon ever visited by humans. Cited by Andrew Chaikin in his landmark 1994 book, A Man on the Moon, Scott considered it good for the spirit to explore beautiful places. At the beautiful place of Hadley, today, lie a few scattered remains of our species’ fourth piloted landing on another world: the battered descent stage of the lunar module Falcon, discarded equipment, scientific experiments, and a battery-powered rover, long-dead now, but which in July-August 1971 enabled Scott and Jim Irwin to explore this desolate place.

Close-up view of a damaged fender on Apollo 17's lunar rover. This image offers some perspective of the size and scale of the battery-powered vehicle. Photo Credit: NASA
Close-up view of a damaged fender on Apollo 17’s lunar rover. This image offers some perspective of the size and scale of the battery-powered vehicle. Photo Credit: NASA

The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), otherwise known simply as the “rover,” had been in the mind of Detroit, Mich.-headquartered General Motors and its subsidiary, Delco, for several years before it reached fruition and the ears of NASA. By the summer of 1966, the formal design of the rover got underway: a 460-pound, four-wheeled collapsible buggy, capable of transporting two astronauts and up to 120 pounds of scientific gear and 60 pounds of lunar samples across as much as 55 miles of the worst kind of off-road terrain ever encountered by humans. The rover could overcome obstacles as high as 12 inches, cross crevasses as wide as 27 inches, descend slopes as steep as 25 degrees, and park itself on 35-degree inclines. Remarkably, when added up, and in the one-sixth lunar gravity, the rover could carry more than twice its own weight in astronauts, space suits, equipment, and rock and soil samples.

Six weeks before Apollo 11, in the summer of 1969, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center of Huntsville, Ala., was given the go-ahead to begin developing the rover. In its initial summing-up of requirements for the machine on 20 June, two major needs were identified by the space agency: a reliable and continuous system of voice communications between the astronauts and Mission Control, and a simple “dead-reckoning” system for navigating across the surface and safely returning the astronauts to the lunar module. On 28 October, a formal agreement was made with Boeing to develop, build, and test the rover; they subcontracted the construction of wheels, motors, chassis, steering, general suspension and controls, and displays to General Motors and Kokomo, Ind.-based Delco Electronics Corp. The initial contract amounted to $19 million, but ultimately $38 million was spent on the development effort. Weight was a primary concern, since the rover would need to be housed in a folded configuration on the lunar module’s descent stage and unfolded as it was lowered to the ground by a system of pulleys and lanyards. Original plans called for an automatic deployment system to bring the rover onto the surface, but problems encountered during its development prompted NASA to direct Boeing in March 1971 to terminate work on this in favour of a manual method.

Fabricated from aluminum, the front and back sections of the rover folded over the middle for storage inside a prism-shaped compartment in the lander’s descent stage. It was driven by a T-shaped hand controller, located on a control and display console “post” between the two astronauts’ seats, which controlled driving forwards and reversing, as well as left and right. Its wheels, which were topped off with bright-orange fenders, had spun-aluminum hubs and titanium bump stops inside tyres made from a woven “mesh” of zinc-coated piano wire and a chevron-like patterning of riveted titanium treads. A traction drive affixed to each wheel had a motor harmonic drive gear unit and brake assembly which reduced motor speed at an 80-1 rate for continuous operation at all speeds without gear shifting. An odometer monitored the distances travelled and sent data to the dead-reckoning navigational system. Seatbelts were provided to keep the fully-suited astronauts aboard the vehicle as it rolled and tumbled its way, like a bucking bronco, across the hummocky lunar terrain. Power came from a pair of 36-volt silver-zinc potassium-hydroxide batteries that supported the drive and steering motors and the communications relay unit and color TV camera.

Man has not walked on another world since 1972. It is unclear when the next set of footprints - or wheels - will be placed in the lunar regolith. Photo Credit: NASA
Man has not walked on another world since 1972. It is unclear when the next set of footprintsor wheelswill be placed in the lunar regolith. Photo Credit: NASA

In a sense, it was quite fitting that the GM-Delco partnership should have been involved to such an extensive degree in the development of the first set of human-driven wheels ever implanted on the surface of another world. Between July 1971 and December 1972, three teams of Apollo astronauts utilized these rovers to explore Hadley, the Descartes highlands, and the mountain-ringed valley of Taurus-Littrow.

The first use of the rover by Dave Scott and Jim Irwin on the Moon on 31 July 1971 showcased its capabilities. To unfold it from the lunar module’s descent stage, the two men tugged on a set of pulleys and braked wheels, and it required both of them, working together, to bring it down to the gray-tan surface. “One astronaut would climb the egress ladder … and release the rover,” wrote Mark Wade on his website, “which would then be slowly tilted out by the second astronaut on the ground. As the rover was let down from the bay, most of the deployment was automatic. The rear wheels folded out and locked in place, and when they touched the ground, the front of the rover could be unfolded, the wheels deployed, and the entire frame let down to the surface by pulleys.” As it flopped into the lunar dust, the contraption—“a brilliant piece of engineering,” Scott would later write, “with sealed electric motors in the hub of each wheel”—was secured with pins.

Scott clambered aboard to give it a test drive and found a minor problem: the front steering was inoperable, so they would have to rely on rear-wheel steering instead. After installing the color television camera and loading up the geology tools, they buckled themselves aboard and set off. It must have been a peculiar sight for any onlooker to see this space-age dune buggy bouncing across the lunar surface; even at top speeds of just eight miles per hour, it was a bouncy ride and if the rover hit a rock, it literally went airborne for a couple of seconds. Irwin later likened it to a bucking bronco or an old rowing boat on a rough lake. “I’ve never liked safety belts,” he wrote in his autobiography, To Rule the Night, “but we couldn’t have done without them on the rover. You could easily get ‘seasick’ if you had any problem with motion.” In fact, Irwin’s seat belt turned out to be too short and before they could set off Scott had to come around to his side of the rover to buckle him in properly. “We didn’t realise,” Irwin explained, “when we made the adjustments on Earth, that at one-sixth-G the suit would balloon more and it would be difficult to compress it enough to fasten the seat belt.”

The last three Apollo lunar landing crews - 15, 16 and 17 - could not have accomplished their scientific explorations and returned their geological bonanzas without the aid of the battery-powered lunar rover. In this view from EVA-1, Gene Cernan puts the vehicle through its first tests, backdropped by the lunar module Challenger. Photo Credit: NASA
The last three Apollo lunar landing crews (15, 16, and 17) could not have accomplished their scientific explorations and returned their geological bonanzas without the aid of the battery-powered lunar rover. In this view from EVA-1, Gene Cernan puts the vehicle through its first tests, backdropped by the lunar module Challenger. Photo Credit: NASA

The “real” rover was also slightly different to drive than the one in which the men had trained on Earth. From his seat, Scott found that he had to concentrate all of his energies simply driving and keeping track of craters—the harsh glare of sunlight made the terrain appear deceptively smooth, literally “washing-out” surface features, and hummocks and furrows appeared out of nowhere, at a split-second’s notice. Its manoeuvrability was good—“it could turn on a dime,” Scott recalled—but its wheels kicked up enormous rooster-tails of dust, which were thankfully deflected by its fenders. “When you go over a rock,” Irwin wrote, “[the wire-mesh wheels] just bow up and absorb the impact and spring back again.”

After three days of exploring the Moon, on 2 August, Scott drove the rover, alone, to a spot a couple of hundred feet east of the lunar module Falcon. From this place, Mission Control would be able to remotely operate its TV camera to record the liftoff of the ascent stage. On the next mission, this final parking place would be nicknamed the VIP Site, because it would give the whole world a VIP-class ticket to observe the launch. For now, Scott pulled out a small red Bible and placed it atop the control panel of the rover, in order to show, he explained, those who followed in the future why they had come. More astronauts, and two more rovers with GM/Delco involvement, would follow Apollo 15 to the Moon. In April 1972, John Young and Charlie Duke touched down in the Descartes highland plains, followed in December by Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt at the valley of Taurus-Littrow.

If GM/Delco were involved so heavily in the design and delivery of the lunar rover, then Chrysler and Ford participated heavily in the definition of vehicles and facilities which enabled Apollo’s remarkable journey across 240,000 miles of uncertainty to our closest celestial neighbor. Alongside Boeing, Chrysler had been selected in the early 1960s to assemble the first stages of the Saturn rocket, which will provide the impulse necessary to boost three men to the lunar surface. In fact, the involvement of Chrysler—and Ford, too—with rocketry and space exploration long predated President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 decision to set sail for the Moon. In the 1950s, Chrysler was prime contractor for the U.S. Army’s Redstone missile, which later placed the first American astronauts—Al Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom—into suborbital space, and Ford provided its myriad guidance and control systems.

In addition to building slidewire escape systems for Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy, Chrysler was also heavily responsible for the fabrication of the “S-IB,” the first stage of Saturn 1B, the first member of this mighty family of rockets ever entrusted with a human crews. Gus Grissom and Wally Schirra—the latter of whom commanded Apollo 7, the first manned Saturn 1B mission—nicknamed it “The Big Maumoo,” in tribute to its sheer size and power. The S-IB measured 83 feet tall and 21 feet wide, and its eight H-1 engines, with their combined 1.6 million pounds of thrust, carried the S-IVB second stage and attached Apollo spacecraft to an altitude of 45 miles, not far short of the FAI-mandated “edge” of space.

Witnesses to the performance of the S-IB noted that its early ascent seemed laborious, for the complete Saturn 1B weighed 1.3 million pounds, only slightly less than the power of the first stage. Time magazine noted that the Apollo 7 liftoff on 11 October 1968 seemed slow and, indeed, from the perspective of the astronauts—Commander Schirra, Senior Pilot Donn Eisele, and Pilot Walt Cunningham—it felt calmer and less oppressive than the G loads experienced by earlier Mercury and Gemini crewmen.

Inside the command module, the crew experienced a clear sense of movement from Chrysler’s S-IB, but only Eisele had a clear view of the commotion that was going on outside. “We had a boost protective cover over the command module,” Cunningham recalled later in a NASA oral history. “There’s an escape rocket that you can use anytime until you get rid of it, and that’s a little after a minute into the flight. Because that rocket puts out a plume, you had to have a cover over the command module so that you wouldn’t coat the windows, and you wouldn’t be able to see anything out of the windows in the event you were coming down on a parachute during an abort. The only place you can see out is over Donn’s head in the centre seat. There’s a little round window, about six inches across, and he was the only one that could see out.”

Boosted by the eight H-1 engines of its Chrysler-built S-IB first stage, the Saturn 1B rocket carries Apollo 7 and astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham into orbit on 11 October 1968. Photo Credit: NASA
Boosted by the eight H-1 engines of its Chrysler-built S-IB first stage, the Saturn 1B rocket carries Apollo 7 and astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham into orbit on 11 October 1968. Photo Credit: NASA

Two and a half minutes into the thunderous ascent, the H-1 engines of Chrysler’s S-IB burned out and it was released, allowing the S-IVB second stage and its single J-2 engine to pick up the thrust and deliver Apollo 7 into orbit. Three more crews would also ride the Saturn 1B—and the S-IB—at the start of their long-duration missions to America’s Skylab space station in 1973 … including Charles “Pete” Conrad, whose own unfortunate childhood association with Chrysler will be explored later in this article.

As for Ford—one of the most well-known and famed automotive manufacturers in the world—their involvement quite literally extended from the ground upwards, since they were awarded contracts in early 1963 to implement NASA’s Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center (later the Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas. “Ford Motor Company had put people on wheels,” it is proclaimed on their corporate website. “Through [their subsidiary] Philco, we were able to play a central role in the most historic and exciting phase of the American space program.” Ford’s work centralized the control of NASA’s manned missions from the mid-1960s.

It is difficult to adequately summarize the accomplishments of these four automobile giants in a matter of a few paragraphs, but is adequate to acknowledge that all four left their indelible stamp on the Apollo program. At least one of them also left an indelible mark on one of the men who was directly affected by their technology. Charles “Pete” Conrad felt the 1.6 million pounds of S-IB thrust under his backside in May 1973, propelling him toward low-Earth orbit. He maneuvered his lunar module, Intrepid, to a landing on the Moon’s Ocean of Storms—using guidance instruments provided by Delco—on Apollo 12 in November 1969, and he completed his missions in the knowledge that they were being orchestrated from a Mission Control complex enabled by Ford.

Yet it was Chrysler—or a Chrysler—which first drew Conrad’s attention, as a child. Born in June 1930, the son of a wealthy family which had made its fortune in real estate in investment banking, Conrad became fascinated with all things mechanical from a very early age. One day, in 1934, when he was barely four years old, Conrad found the keys to his father’s Chrysler. He unlocked it, jumped into the driver’s seat, started the ignition, and reversed it off the driveway. A comic moment, perhaps, but illustrative that technology and the providers of technology, like Chrysler, Delco, Ford and GM, have an uncanny way of fascinating us and inspiring us to dream big dreams. Pete Conrad certainly followed his dreams and from finding that set of Chrysler keys to clambering down the ladder of his lunar module, he achieved them. Perhaps that was an indicator that wheels were always intended to visit the surface of another world.


  1. Ben, on behalf of all Detroiters, thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!!! Born and bred in Motown, The Arsenal of Democracy (the first expressway in America, the Davison Fwy. was built here to carry parts for the Liberator bombers at Willow Run Ford assembly), the City That Moves The World, your highlighting of the contributions of Ford, Chrysler, GM, Delco, and the hard-working members of the UAW is most sincerely appreciated. My Father wanted to join the Marines after Pearl Harbor but his engineering skills were deemed “critical to the war effort” and he could not enlist. My Mother was a “Rosie The Riveter” at the Ford Rouge Plant. Our once mighty and proud industrial workhorse of a city is now much maligned and often the punch-line of jokes. Steel mills and production lines which once glowed and thundered as dedicated workers sweated and strained to manufacture jeeps, tanks, trucks, munitions, etc. now rust and decay. In many areas our beautiful city, once “The Paris of the Midwest” bears harsh bombed-out likeness to Berlin circa 1945. Several months ago police officers, in desperation, handed out flyers stating “Enter Detroit At Your Own Risk”, broken-down EMS units were piled in a storage yard as 911 calls went unanswered, and yesterday two Detroit police officers were shot down in the street (we continue to pray for the officer with in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the head). Ben, I have always thoroughly enjoyed, savored, your exceptionally well-done articles and your excellent books. This article, however, is a lifesaving ring thrown to a drowning man, an ice-cold glass of water to a sun-seared desert-parched lost soul. The Big Three, the UAW, and all Detroit extend their heartfelt gratitude to you Ben.

  2. Ben’s article is a fitting reminder that American companies have the skill, technology and good old-fashion Yankee ingenuity. As we move to Orion, we must never lose sight of the significant contributions of the Apollo-era engineers in the various companies such as Ford and Chrysler who made the moon program such a huge technological as well as scientific success.. Let’s continue forward on the shoulders of these giants.

    • I certainly agree that there are plenty of good examples of American companies that are able to attract the right kind of minds to make impressive technological and engineering advancements, and we can all be proud of that. However, seeing the phrase “Yankee ingenuity” obligates me to mention two significant individuals who deserve recognition when talking about the story behind the lunar rover’s creation: Mieczyslaw Bekker and Ferenc Pavlics. Both were hardly yankees, they were immigrants (from Poland and Hungary) who have pretty interesting stories of their own.

      It’s not just the corporate giants that move us forward, it’s also importantly the exceptional individuals that those companies provide with the right tools and environment to do amazing things.

      • Matt, thank you very much for the kind, respectful, (and greatly appreciated) “shout out” to the immigrants from Poland and Hungary – the “exceptional individuals” who so cherished this great nation and all that it offers. To them, hard work, education, family, community and God were the foundation for success. Detroit has a large Hungarian population, and Hamtramck is a Polish enclave within Detroit. This country has given my ancestors much, and we are grateful for the opportunity to “return the favor” whenever possible. With sincere respect and highest esteem, Karol Anthony Lesnick, Great-Grandson of Karol Lesnick – immigrant from Poland and John Bartok – immigrant from Hungary.

  3. Matt: Thank you for reminding me that it wasn’t entirely “Yankee ingenuity.” I failed to remember the immigrants who worked in the space program and in no way did I mean to diminish their contributions. They are also a testament to the hard work and dedication needed to accomplish the moon landings. We celebrate them all!

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