The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) was the first vehicle designed for another world. It was a staple of the later Apollo missions and helped astronauts travel further afield on the Moon than ever before. Though it resembled a dune buggy, with its nickname affectionately being “Moon buggy”, it was actually very different from a car in the traditional sense.
Thoughts for a Moon car date back as early as the 1950s but NASA didn’t get serious about the idea until the mid-1960s, well into the Apollo Program.
In 1969, the LRV contract was awarded to Boeing and was a collaboration with Delco Electrics, a division of General Motors.
The two companies had a lot of work ahead of them. Not only did the rover have to be lightweight and durable, it had to fold up and be stored as part of the Lunar Module. It also needed a long-lasting battery and be able to function in an environment that had little gravity and no atmosphere, where temperatures ranged from -128°C to 93°C.
The first LRV was delivered to NASA in 17 months with the final project cost coming to US$38 million*. In total, there were three fully operational lunar rovers built, seven test versions constructed and a lot of spare parts left over.
The LRV was ground-breaking in what it achieved. Two 36-volt electric batteries powered separate front and rear steering systems. In the place of a steering wheel, the rover had a single control that could start, drive and stop it. Each wheel had its own electric motor and the tyres were made out of a piano-wire-like mesh that made it easy to move over sharp rocks without getting stuck. The LRV had a top speed of 13 km/h and the technology was later adapted to create the first electric wheelchairs.
A rover was designed to operate for a full lunar day (78 hours) and cover a distance of up to 65 km. On the Moon it was limited to a 10 km radius from the Lunar Module. That way if something went wrong astronauts could easily get back to safety on foot.
Fitted with a number of systems like communications and a colour camera, a LRV could carry two astronauts and up to 27 kg of lunar rocks.
Each LRV was stored on the side of the Lunar Module and an astronaut would deploy it via a pulley system to lower it to the Moon’s surface.
The last three Apollo flights each had their own LRV. Apollo 15 astronauts drove their rover 28 km over 3 hours, Apollo 16 went 27 km in 3.5 hours and Apollo 17 did 36 km in 4.5 hours.
In 2021, Lockheed Martin—a company that has been building rockets since the earliest days of the space age—teamed up with General Motors to design the next generation rover.
Though no contract has been awarded, NASA has also asked the space industry for rover ideas for their upcoming Artemis missions. NASA has requested two types: an open frame and a pressurised cabin version.
*No figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation.
Photo Credit: NASA (https://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/alsj/a15/AS15-88-11901HR.jpg)
Apollo’s First Lunar Rover, Driven 50 Years Ago (https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2021/07/apollos-first-lunar-rover-driven-50-years-ago/619528/)
Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle, The (https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/apollo_lrv.html)
Design of the Lunar Rover Was Mostly Guesswork, The (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsftnWIjYnA)
Lockheed Martin, GM Team Up to Build New Astronaut Moon Buggy (https://www.space.com/lockheed-martin-gm-moon-rover-artemis-astronauts)
Lunar Roving Vehicle (https://www.boeing.com/history/products/lunar-roving-vehicle.page)
Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) (https://airandspace.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/apollo/apollo-program/spacecraft/lrv.cfm)
Lunar Roving Vehicle Trainer (https://spacecenter.org/exhibits-and-experiences/starship-gallery/lunar-roving-vehicle-trainer/)