Lunar Rovers Conquer the Moon
Now largely forgotten, the lunar rovers were driven nearly 56 miles on the Moon’s surface and were the crowning accomplishment of America’s manned space program
Throughout history, we have celebrated the few among us who have dared to go where others have not. Their names remain familiar long after their explorations: Erikson, Magellan, and Cook. Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton. Peary and Henson. Livingstone. Columbus. Marco Polo. But the twelve men who stepped onto the moon ventured farther from home and faced a greater range of dangers than all of their predecessors.
We remember few of their names. Only the first pair to land are readily known to many (I dare not say most) Americans. That’s understandable, if disappointing: Apollo 11’s touchdown marked a triumph of the imagination, as much as technology. The courage it required, the precision it demanded, and the sheer boldness of the undertaking—not to mention the anticipation attending Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the regolith—thrilled and inspired a world witnessing it live on television on July 20, 1969.
But fact is that the greatest achievements of our lunar adventures came later, when the world was no longer hanging on every word the moonwalkers spoke or following every step they took, on missions that are recalled dimly today. In fact, you could argue that every earlier American venture into space was preparation for the last three trips to the moon. The six manned Project Mercury flights of the early 1960s established that spacecraft and their passengers could survive the forces required to get them into Earth's orbit and back. Ten manned Project Gemini missions sent up two astronauts at a time, demonstrating that they could function for days on end in space, and testing and refining the maneuvers and spacecraft dockings central to the moon missions to come.
Each of the early Apollo flights checked out the equipment and procedures necessary for a landing: In October 1968, the first manned mission, Apollo 7, test-drove the command and service module. Two months later, Apollo 8 fired humans into deep space and around the moon for the first time, aboard the first manned Saturn V; its crew became the first to witness the moon’s far side and they snapped Earth’s most revealing selfie. Apollo 9 shook down the lunar module in low Earth orbit, while Apollo 10 served as a dress rehearsal for the coming first visit to the moon’s surface.
Each of the early landings built on the former. Apollo 11 aimed simply to put its astronauts on the moon and get them back alive. Eagle landed on the board-flat Sea of Tranquility, the safest but least interesting real estate on the sphere, and its crew didn’t stray far from their base. All of the footprints left by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would fit inside a football field, with a lot of yardage to spare. A few months later, Apollo 12 set down on another tame expanse of lunar desert, but within sight of an unmanned probe sent there two years earlier—which Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan Bean inspected in the course of hiking about 1.4 miles.
They thereby established that a crew could land at a specific point, and cleared the way for more demanding and interesting destinations. Apollo 13 didn’t have the chance to follow through on that promise, but Apollo 14 did, pinpoint-landing in the highlands of Fra Mauro. Shepard’s and Mitchell’s dispiriting march to the edge of Cone, long though it was, never took them much beyond a half mile from base.
Then, with Apollo 15, NASA applied all it had learned into putting its men and materiel to their best and most challenging uses. This mission's exploits marked the program’s transition to deeper science and far more swashbuckling exploration. In part, that was thanks to the beefed-up lunar module that Scott and Irwin had flown to their Hadley-Apennine lava-field landing site, as well as the improved backpacks they wore, both of which gave them time for a longer look around. But more importantly, they had range. “They were looking at how the astronauts could get the most bang for the buck—in getting around, in picking things up, in exploring,” Morea told me at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration in Huntsville, Alabama, hands in the pockets of his lab coat as he gazed at the rover with parental pride. “So, they looked at a number of ideas. One was a pogo stick.” He glanced my way and chuckled. “Really, a pogo stick! But then a car came up pretty fast.” A couple of seconds passed before he added: “Though it’s not a car. It’s really a spacecraft.”
When Scott and Irwin braked their rover to end their first excursion, two hours and sixteen minutes after its start, they had covered 6.3 miles — more than all the travel achieved by the first three landing crews combined. All told, astronauts on the last three lunar visits drove more than fifty-six miles. Each mission’s rovers could cover an area the size of Manhattan.
Ever bolder exploits followed. Sixteen months on, Apollo 17’s LRV churned its way up a ridge-like fault that rose high above a lunar plain, then rolled down the other side. When astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt stopped at the bottom to collect rock samples, they were nearly five miles from their lunar module, near the outer limit of their safe radius of travel.
The moment the two climbed off their rover—at 8:36 p.m. EST on Tuesday, December 12, 1972—marked a pinnacle in the annals of exploration. No other explorers had been in circumstances so remote or so extreme in their hazards. No expedition before or since pushed adventure farther or further. Cernan and Schmitt were out at the edge of the edge of our travels as a species. By contrast, Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole was a run to the corner grocery.
As they drove, the rover crews piled their machine with moon rocks. Of the 842 pounds of geologic samples collected on the six Apollo landings, nearly three-quarters, about 620 pounds, were gathered on drives in the LRVs. Shared with scientists around the globe, the samples have informed our understanding of the heavens ever since.
It comes down to this: Remembered or not, the nine days that the final three crews spent on the moon were a fitting culmination to Apollo, and a half century later, they remain the crowning accomplishment of America’s manned space program. Their success would have been beyond reach without the wispy contrivance on display at the Davidson Center. And other rovers just like it.
The Davidson’s machine is one of several built to test the design; the one at this museum was the vibration-test unit, constructed exactly like those certified for flight, but tormented for months in shakers, vacuums, ovens, and deep freezers to gauge its hardiness during launch and touchdown. It’s as close to the genuine article as we can get. The three rovers sent to the moon remain there, along with a scattered junkyard of other Apollo detritus.
Anyone who still doubts that astronauts visited the moon—and those people still walk among us, even at this late date—need only go online to find overhead photos of the landing sites, taken in 2011 by a lunar orbiter. In surprising detail, they show the three rovers parked near their landers.
Plainly visible all around them, and stretching for miles across the lunar wastes, are tire tracks.