Apollo 15 astronaut: “I think the Moon buggy vehicle is about as optimum as you can build”

NASA’s electric-powered Lunar buggy is one of the most expensive cars in the history of humankind

The Moon buggy drove across the Lunar surface during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions

The Moon buggy drove across the Lunar surface during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions

Officially known as the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), NASA’s state-of-the-art, $38-million-dollar Moon buggy was more spacecraft than regular vehicle. Its designers were tasked with producing a buggy that could carry two astronauts in heavy spacesuits along with their scientific equipment over the rugged Moon terrain where temperatures can range from plus or minus 120 degrees Celsius (250 degrees Fahrenheit) and the gravity is one-sixth weaker than on Earth.

To fit the buggy inside the 1.8 x 1.2 metre (6 x 4 foot) Quadrant 1 bay of the Descent Stage of the Lunar Module, the wheels folded inwards and the whole body was folded in half. A set of ropes, cloth tapes, pulleys and springs enabled it to be swung out from the craft, and the wheels and body semi-automatically snapped into place. It took the Apollo 15 astronauts 26 minutes to deploy it in this fashion – ten minutes longer than originally planned.

The buggy was the size of a small car at 3.1 metres (10.1 feet) long, 1.83 metres (six feet) wide, 1.14 metres (3.7 feet) high. It didn’t have a roof and the seats were like webbed patio furniture with Velcro strips on the surface. The astronauts had special spacesuits that could bend at the waist to enable them to sit in the vehicle, and the main steering and speed control was a T-shaped handle that could be easily operated with bulky spacesuit gloves.

Each wheel had its own electric motor, so that if one or more failed the buggy was still driveable. The front and rear wheels each had their own steering motor, with the option to steer with four wheels or with just the front or rear wheels. The buggy had a turning circle of 3.1 metres (10.1 feet) and had an average speed of nine kilometres per hour (5.6 miles per hour). During the Apollo 17 mission, Eugene Cernan set the speed record for the buggy at 18 kilometres per hour (11.2 miles per hour).

Only three buggies ever flew to the Moon, on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. On each mission, they made three separate journeys beyond the Lunar Module, to a maximum distance of 7.6 kilometres (4.7 miles). It was a very stable vehicle, although under the low gravity the wheels had a tendency to float off the ground and return to the Lunar surface much slower than expected.

It only took 17 months to design, test and build the buggy at a cost of $38 million USD (£24 million), making it the most costly car in history. Nonetheless, it was a great success as it enabled the Apollo 15 astronauts to explore four times more territory than the previous Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions put together. As Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott put it: “I think the vehicle is about as optimum as you can build.”

Image Credit: NASA

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