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How Did NASA Engineer a Car for the Moon? | Apollo

NASA’s first car to drive on the Moon revolutionized space exploration, giving astronauts the ability to travel farther than ever before.

Throughout the 1960s, NASA conducted studies with various contractors to determine the best design for the lunar vehicle. Some of the ideas were pretty outrageous. There was the Lunar Worm, a mobile vehicle that would inch its way across the lunar surface. And the Lunar Leaper which would use "pogo sticks" to hop across craters. But of all the designs, a massive mobile laboratory, dubbed MOLAB, was one of the first under serious consideration.

But by the mid-1960s, the cost of transporting MOLAB to the Moon became unsustainable. Scientists shifted gears to developing smaller lunar vehicle concepts. In 1969, NASA announced that Boeing would be the contractor to bring its Lunar Roving Vehicle to life. The manufacturer built several mock-ups and tested them in specialized chambers that mimicked the the extreme low-gravity vacuum of the Moon. In just 17 months, Boeing delivered  flight ready Lunar Roving Vehicles for the final Apollo missions. The LRV was powered by two 36-volt silver-zinc potassium hydroxide non-rechargeable batteries that would last up to 78 hours during the lunar day. Its tires were made of a woven mesh of zinc-coated piano wire, and the titanium treads riveted in a chevron pattern prevented the wheels from sinking into the lunar soil. Each wheel was equipped with an electric motor, propelling the vehicle to a top speed of 13 kilometers per hour. Its frame was made of welded 2219 aluminum-alloy tubing, keeping the vehicle light yet strong enough to carry over twice its weight. The LRV frame hinged in the center enabling the entire car to fold into a compact package small enough to stow in the Lunar Module.  

Apollo 15 was the first mission to launch with the LRV onboard. And while it was only used for a small portion of the Apollo Program, the Lunar Roving Vehicle revolutionized space exploration. It gave astronauts the ability to do three times the amount of work that would be done on foot. And after Apollo, engineers used the LRV to help design rovers for the Mars Pathfinder project which paved the way for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. The LRV’s stint on the Moon was cut short, but the vehicle played a big part in NASA’s original plans for life on the lunar landscape.