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Four Wheeling on the Moon

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lunar roving vehicleMarch 17, 2000 -- Imagine you're an astronaut. After a long voyage from Earth you've just landed your craft on an alien planet. The thrill of being where no one has been before makes your blood race. In every direction bizarre vistas beckon. Ancient lava winds around billion year old boulders. Nearby hills covered with fine dust offer skiing as good as the best Alpine resorts back home. The distant Sun casts strange shadows over the crests of enormous craters. It's time to explore!

Right: Pictured here during the Apollo 17 landing, the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) (better known as the Moon Buggy) carried astronauts across the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions.

Just then your radio crackles.

"Good morning astronauts, this is Houston. Just a reminder from mission control... you need to stay within 1000 ft of your lander."

What!?

"That's right Eagle, we're afraid you might get tired or lost."

Hard to believe? Believe it. The early Apollo astronauts who landed on the Moon weren't allowed to stray far from the Lunar Lander. Mission planners were concerned that fatigue and disorientation were dangers to the first moon walkers. After the Apollo 11 moon landing, Neil Armstrong argued that a loping gait could carry astronauts and supplies for many miles with little
effort. But training exercises on a 1/6 Gee simulator showed the opposite. Astronauts could become surprisingly tired in the Moon's low-gravity environment. [ref]

And what about getting lost? After navigating 300,000 miles from Earth and landing within meters of their target, it might seem unlikely that astronauts would lose their way. However, consider the case of Apollo 14. Astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell had to scrap a planned rock-collecting trip to the 1 km wide Cone Crater when they became disoriented by the alien landscape. It was later discovered that they were only a little more than 30 meters from the crater's rim when they gave up the search. [ref]

Apollo astronauts were frustrated that they couldn't travel very far from their lander, plus scientists wanted moon rocks returned from the widest possible area. They needed a moon buggy!

In May 1969 NASA officials decided that a "Lunar Roving Vehicle" (LRV), to be housed in the descent stage of the Moon lander, was the best way to extend the range of the astronauts. The Marshall Space Flight Center, directing the development of the LRV, issued a request for proposals to industry on July 11, 1969.

see caption Technical requirements for the rover were demanding. The moon buggy had to operate in a low-gravity, airless environment featuring unknown dusty terrain and 400 degree daily temperature extremes. Not only that, the vehicle had to fold up to fit within the tight, pie-shaped confines of the lunar module. After landing, mission designers wanted the rover to unfold from its stowed configuration and deploy itself to the lunar surface with minimum assistance from the astronauts.

Left: The Apollo moon buggy as it is driven across the lunar surface, leaving tracks in the powdery moon soil.

Looking much like a beach-crawling dune buggy, the lunar rover was built by the Boeing Co., Aerospace Group, at its Kent Space Center near Seattle, WA, under contract to the Marshall Space Flight Center. Boeing's major subcontractor was the Delco Electronics Division of the General Motors Corp. By the time the moon buggy was sent aloft on Apollo 15 three flight vehicles had been built, plus seven test and training units, spare components, and related equipment.

Weighing approximately 460 pounds on Earth (209 kg), the LRV could carry a total payload weight of about 1,080 Earth pounds (490 kg) when it was deployed on the Moon. Each wheel was individually powered by a quarter-horsepower electric motor (providing a total of one horsepower) and the vehicle's top speed was about 13 km/hr (8 mph) on a relatively smooth surface.

The moon buggy allowed Apollo 15, 16 and 17 astronauts to venture further from the Lunar Module than ever before. Total surface traverses increased from hundreds of meters during earlier missions to tens of kilometers during Apollo 15 and 16 and just over 100 kilometers during Apollo 17.

Fast forward to 2000...

It's tempting to speculate that Apollo astronauts -- rumored to love fancy cars and fast driving -- would have liked to have two LRVs on the Moon. The first lunar drag race might have featured crater jumping, spinouts around primeval boulders, and a finish line drawn in moon dust behind the lunar landing module. Of course that never happened....

see captionEnter the 7th annual Great Moonbuggy Race.

On April 7, 2000, students from colleges and high schools across the US and Puerto Rico, will converge on Huntsville, Alabama for the exciting race that Apollo astronauts never held. The event, sponsored by the Marshall Space Flight Center Center and others, challenges students to design and build a human-powered vehicle that addresses engineering problems similar to those faced by the designers of the original lunar rover. Competitors will race their vehicles in the shadow of a giant Saturn V, like the rocket that boosted NASA's lunar rover to the Moon, and a full-size Space Shuttle mock-up. The one-half mile race course is speckled with "lava ridges," "craters" and sandpits -- simulating the lunar surface -- as it winds through the grounds of the US Space & Rocket Center.

After a safety inspection of each vehicle, the competition begins when the two crew members -- one male and one female student -- carry their moon buggy a distance of 20 feet and place it at the starting line. As the event clock starts ticking, the crews unfold and assemble their buggies from a bin no larger than a 4-foot cube and race around the course. The clock stops when the vehicle and crew cross the finish line.

see caption Prizes are awarded to the top three finishers. The top prize is a trip to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch a Space Shuttle launch. A prize also will be awarded to the buggy judged to be the "best" design from an original, creative concept and offering the best technical solution to navigating on a planetary surface.

Left: A team of Graff Career Center students from Springfield, Mo., was the winner in the high school division of the 6th annual Great Moonbuggy Race, held today in Huntsville, Ala. The first-place high school team was rewarded with a trip to Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville.

If this sounds like fun and you're interested in joining next year's Moonbuggy Race, please contact Frank Brannon, the Marshall Center’s university relations coordinator, at (256) 544-5920, or e-mail him at Frank.Brannon@msfc.nasa.gov. Media who want to cover this year’s race should contact Jerry Berg of the Marshall Media Relations Department at (256) 544-0034.

The Great Moonbuggy Race is sponsored by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Sci-Quest, and the Alabama Aerospace Teachers' Association. For more information see http://moonbuggy.msfc.nasa.gov.

Web Links7th Annual great Moon Buggy Race -- home page, from the Marshall Space Flight Center