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The Ultimate Road Trip

July 2, 2021  | 

You’ve landed on the moon. Now what? Take a walk, plant a flag, gather rocks and fly home. When in 1969 Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins splashed down at the end of the Apollo 11 mission, they fulfilled President Kennedy’s audacious dare. The animating goal of the space program had been met, and the public’s attention began to wane. Congress started cutting NASA’s budgets. In turn, NASA canceled several planned flights. The narrowly averted Apollo 13 disaster in 1970 convinced many taxpayers that their dollars were better spent elsewhere.

What rekindled interest in the space program was that most American of conveyances: the automobile. The lunar rover, built by contractors for $40 million on a frantic 17-month schedule, was a car for the moon. It reinvigorated the final three Apollo missions, from 1971 to 1972. The rover allowed for better communications, longer time on the lunar surface, and, most important, a vastly expanded range. In his compelling history of the rover’s place in the space program, “Across the Airless Wilds,” Earl Swift writes that, during Apollo 15, 16 and 17, astronauts drove it over 56 miles.

Contrast that with Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s bipedal wanderings. They estimated that they could cover only a half-mile on foot in their heavy, pressurized suits. Yet the moon’s surface was far more dynamic than the Sea of Tranquility, and deserved a thoroughgoing exploration. Its features include massive canyons and towering mountain ranges. Astronauts on Apollo 15 collected a 4 x 2-inch chunk of crystal anorthosite over 4 billion years old. NASA sought evidence of volcanic activity and detailed samples of the lunar crust. Such scientific discoveries were a far cry from Alan Shepard’s 6-iron, which became the corny star of Apollo 14. That was before astronauts could drive.

Mr. Swift, the author of seven previous works of nonfiction, lays out the genesis of the lunar rover and introduces the engineers who conceived and built it. He notes pointedly that many of them, like M.G. Bekker and Ferenc Pavlics, were immigrants. Unlike other landmark books about the space program, “Airless Wilds” is not a story of fighter pilots or sudden explosions. Instead it is a chronicle of incremental progress: meticulous planning, working under deadline, the satisfactions of a job well done. Such are Mr. Swift’s narrative talents and the bounties of the source material that the book is a joy to read from beginning to end.

Early concepts for some sort of moon vehicle ranged from the creative to the absurd. Mr. Swift situates readers in an analog era of gray space suits and crooked antennae dreamed up by men in thin neckties. One design in the mid-1950s showed a car “shaped like an overgrown Tootsie Pop, with its spherical cabin up top of a single long leg, which in turn was mounted on a caterpillar-tread foot.” It would leap as high as 410 feet. Another early idea featured “a triangular rover that high-stepped along on six jointed legs” and explored with “crablike pincers.” NASA became serious about building a rover in the late 1960s and issued a request for proposals. Firms like Bendix, Chrysler and Grumman submitted detailed bids, but Boeing and its subcontractor General Motors won the commission.

The chapters on the construction and delivery of the vehicle from 1969 to 1971 describe a near-fiasco. Although Boeing completed the rover two weeks ahead of schedule, it more than doubled its projected budget of $18.7 million. In addition to suffering failures of project management, the company struggled with one of NASA’s immovable specifications: the rover must weigh no more than 400 pounds. It would carry two astronauts, each weighing 370 pounds in his space suit, not to mention a payload of equipment and rocks. This meant the rover would have to support much more than its own weight on the lunar surface. As Mr. Swift notes, “cars and trucks on Earth are rarely called upon to carry more than half their weight.”

There were other design challenges. Solar radiation and temperature extremes would destroy rubber tires, while those pumped with air could not be refilled in the event of a flat. Hence, fabricating durable and extremely lightweight wheels became a critical component of the project. NASA built three crater fields in Arizona for test drives. Then there was the question of finding room for the rover on the landing module. Mr. Pavlics solved this problem over a four-month period by using a 1:6 scale model and testing various configurations. The eventual rover could fold in on itself, with the wheels resting on top of the chassis. The scale model included a G.I. Joe action figure in the cockpit wearing a silver Gemini space suit.

The rover made its debut in July 1971 on Apollo 15. The chapters on its near-flawless performance are the best in the book. Mr. Swift describes the unnatural challenges that astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin faced while driving on the lunar surface. “The moon played tricks on them. The horizon was weirdly close. The sky was utterly black. The gray surface concealed its features behind swells and declivities. And the astronauts’ perception of size and distance was jumbled by the absence of any visual yardsticks—trees or houses or clouds—so that a large rock hundreds of yards away looked no different from a smaller one close by.” Tumbling into a crater meant death because the astronauts would be unable to get out. They kept to a strict 6-mile radius, the absolute farthest their suits could support a hike back to the lunar module.

The rover performed so well that it was sent back up with only minor modifications for Apollo 16 and 17, both in 1972. On those missions, the crew ranged farther than before, exploring mountain sides and setting a new moon-speed record of 11.2 miles per hour. At one point the vehicle needed to be repositioned, but its resting spot on a slope made this precarious. The astronauts simply lifted it up and turned it around. When they needed to return to the lunar module, they used a trick of off-roaders everywhere and followed their own tire tracks home.

What is almost as astonishing as these feats is the notion that any of this ever became commonplace. Today the late Apollo missions are being lost in the shadow of Armstrong’s moonwalk and the haze of time. Mr. Swift has reminded readers of an endlessly fascinating chapter in space exploration with widespread implications for the future. The Curiosity and Perseverance vehicles—modern descendants of the lunar rover—have given us countless insights about the surface of Mars in the last decade. And rovers recently featured in one of the most breathtaking car-chase scenes ever filmed, in James Gray’s 2019 movie “Ad Astra.” Rockets and spaceships are well and good. But nothing beats a road trip.

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