Half a century ago, astronauts took a car farther off-road than any that had come before it. And only two other cars have managed to do the same. These were NASA’s lunar rovers, and as The New York Times notes in its story about the anniversary, they were impressive engineering feats on their own, and they enabled more scientific exploration than would’ve been possible simply walking on the surface.
The two-seat electric buggies were developed in part by General Motors and Boeing and had to weigh under 500 pounds but handle about 1,200 pounds of payload. According to the Times article, the project was approved a couple of months before Apollo 11 launched, and the two companies had a tough time getting it done and ended up going over budget. The rover also had to ride to the moon folded up to fit inside a 16-cubic-foot cargo hold on the lunar module’s descent stage. Based on photos, it looks like you probably could’ve easily loaded it into the back of a pickup truck.
The rover of course was completed, and three examples each reached the moon with Apollo 15, 16 and 17. The first rover covered a fair bit of ground. According to NASA, it was driven about 17 miles, which would’ve taken a fair bit of time as the rover had a top speed of 8.7 mph. The second two trips saw mileage counts of 16.5 and 22 miles respectively. The Times story notes that the rover was never taken farther than the astronauts could walk, though, just in case something went wrong. On that first trip, 170 pounds of rock samples were collected and hauled on the rover. Add in the samples taken on the next two missions, and the total collected was 622 pounds.
The Times story goes into further details about the importance of being able to obtain these samples and the freedom provided by the rover. It also includes notes about the driving experience and some of the cultural importance of the rover being a car and not something else, so it’s definitely worth a read.
And if you’re interested in the connections between cars and moon exploration, we have our own story all about how American automakers contributed to the Apollo program. It wasn’t just GM and the rover. Chrysler built the Saturn 1B and other rocket engines, Ford helped develop the communications systems, and GM also worked on the all-important Apollo guidance systems.
Finally, if you’d like to try driving a moon rover yourself, you might want to look for a copy of “Gran Turismo 6″ for PlayStation 3. The game features a few missions on accurately mapped terrain to drive on with the lunar rover. It’s either that or become an astronaut and hope you get to go on a future manned mission to the lunar surface. Several future lunar vehicles are in the works, with some concepts from GM along with Toyota and Lexus.