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Taking a look at the lunar rovers 40 years later

December 19, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan

NASA knew that in order to properly explore the moon, walking wouldn’t be enough.

Astronauts needed to drive.

This month marks 40 years since man has been to the moon. It also marks the last ride of the lunar roving vehicles that gave astronauts an enhanced ability to explore our nearest neighbor in space.

The four-wheel, lightweight rover carried tools, scientific equipment and lunar samples during the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. NASA said it multiplied the amount of information the astronauts gathered by a factor of at least three.

PHOTOS: NASA rovers on the moon

To build the rover, NASA teamed with Boeing Co. and  General Motors' Delco electronics division in Santa Barbara. The original contract to Boeing  -- with Delco as a subcontractor -- was for $19 million and called for delivery of the first rover by April 1, 1971.

The first of three rovers was delivered to NASA March 10, 1971, but cost overruns led to a final cost of $38 million. To get to the moon, the rover was folded up and stored in the lunar module that landed the astronauts on the surface.

The 10-foot, 2-inch-long rovers were powered by two 36-volt batteries. The wheels, traction drive, suspension, steering and drive control permitted the rover to cross the moon’s forbidding rocky terrain.  

“The rover handles quite well,” astronaut Dave Scott said while on the first drive. “We’re moving at an average of about 8 kilometers (5 miles) per hour.… The steering is quite responsive.”

A T-shaped hand controller between the two seats was used to control the rover. Moving the stick forward powered the rover forward, left and right. Flipping a switch on the handle before pulling back put the rover into reverse.

There is no GPS on the moon. Navigation was based on continuously recording direction and distance through use of a directional gyro and odometer, so astronauts knew how to return by the most direct route.

Each wheel was individually powered by an electric motor that provided about one horsepower.

With a smooth surface, the rover could hit a top speed of about 8 miles per hour. The longest trip was more than 12 miles. 

During Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon, astronaut Gene Cernan accidentally hit the rover’s fender with a hammer and broke it off.  This made for a picture-perfect burnout when moon dust was  thrown on the astronauts and cargo during their first outing.

“This is quite a machine, I tell you,” Cernan said.

PHOTOS: NASA rovers on the moon


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