Looking back at NASA's lunar rovers 40 years later

This December most people are likely focused more on Christmas and family than anything else. The holiday season makes it easy to forget that this month marks 40 years since man has been to the moon. Marking 40 years since man has been on the moon also means it has been 40 years since astronauts sat in the driver seat of NASA's lunar rovers that carted astronauts around the surface of the moon.

NASA knew that astronauts wouldn't be able to explore enough of the surface of the moon on foot and sent lunar rovers to the surface of the moon to give them greater mobility. The lunar rover was a four-wheel lightweight device that carried tools, scientific equipment, and lunar samples. The rover was used during the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions.

NASA says that by having the rover on the surface of the moon for astronauts to use, the amount of information gathered during the missions was increased by a factor of at least three. NASA teamed with Boeing and General Motors Delco electronics division to build the lunar rover. The original contract is worth $19 million and called for the first delivery of a rover by April 1, 1971.

The first of the three rovers was delivered to NASA on March 10, 1971. Like many programs, cost overruns pushed the final dollar amount for the rovers to $38 million. The rover was folded up and stored in the lunar module that landed astronauts on the surface of the moon. The rover was a couple inches longer than 10-feet and was powered by a pair of 36-volt batteries.

Rather than the steering wheel, the rover had a T-shaped hand controller between the seats that worked like a joystick. The rover was equipped with a directional Gyro and an odometer so astronauts knew how to return to their ship by the most direct route. Each wheel with the rover had its own electric motor producing about 1 hp. On a smooth surface the rover was able to reach a top speed of 80 mph and the longish trip ever took was more than 12 miles. The only mishap with moon rovers on the surface of the moon came during the Apollo 17 mission when astronaut Gene Cernan accidentally hit the rover's fender with a hammer and broke the fender off.

[via LA Times]