There’s been millions upon millions of motor vehicles built over the last century or so. There’s the bulk volume cargo vehicles, the popular and long lasting nameplates and then there’s the hand built rarities. One could toss in a name like Bugatti, or muse upon the Aston Martins built for the 2015/2016 Bond film, Spectre. However it’s arguable that the rarest cars in the world, of which there are three examples, and may never be touched by human hands in the first half of the 21st century, are the Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV examples, left near the landing sites for Apollos 15, 16 and 17.The design for the LRV or “moon buggy” as they became popularly known, was part of the overall design brief for the Apollo missions as far back as the early 1960s. However, the idea for a manned vehicle that would traverse the moon had been discussed in the early to mid 1950s by people such as Werner von Braun.
In 1964 von Braun raised the idea again in an edition of “Popular Mechanics” and revealed that discussions between NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Centre, Boeing, General Motors and others. Design studies were put conducted under the watchful eyes of MSFC. In early planning, it was mooted that there would be two Saturn V rockets for the moon missions, one for the astronauts and one for the equipment. The American Congress squeezed NASA and, as a result, the funds for including two boosters were reduced to one, making a redesign of the Lunar Module assembly a priority if a LRV was to be included.
In the mid 1960s two conferences, the Summer Conference on Lunar Exploration and Science in 1965 and 1967, assessed the plans that NASA had for journeying to the moon and exploration around the landing sites. Further design studies and development resulted in NASA selecting a design in 1969 that would become the LRV. In a small piece of history, a request for proposals for supplying and building the LRV were released by MSFC. Boeing, Grumman, and others were eventually selected as component builders; Boeing, for example, would manage the project, the Defense research Lab section of General Motors would look after the driveline componentry and Boeing’s Seattle plant would manage the electronics.The first budget cost for Boeing was nineteen million. NASA’s original estimate, however, was double that and called for a delivery date in 1971. As seemed normal for the time, cost overruns ended up being at the NASA end of the estimate and out of this came four rovers. Three would be used for Apollo 15, 16, and 17, with the fourth cannibalised for spare parts when the Apollo program was cancelled.
Static and development models were also created and built to assess the human interactive part, to test the propulsion and training models were built. None of these would make it to the moon. Barely two years after Armstrong and Aldrin first stepped on the moon, Apollo 15 used a LRV for the very first time.Bearing in mind the cost per kilo to lift an item from the surface of the earth, the LRV’s weight of 210 kilos must make one of the most expensive vehicles per kilo to have been shipped to its final destination. However, this equals just 35 kilos of weight on the moon. Part of this of course can be attributed to the four independent electric motors that moved the LRV around, with a designed top speed of just 13 kmh. Astronaut Eugene Cernan, on the Apollo 17 mission, recorded a top speed of 18 kmh. Each wheel had a motor powered by the on board battery system, with a total rated out put of just 190 watts, or a quarter of a horsepower. The tires themselves were the work of genius: a wire mesh design combined with a set of titanium chevrons for the “tread”, with a footprint per tyre of nine inches on a 32 inch wheel. Steering was electrically powered as well, with motors front and rear.
It was a unique design situation to get the LRV on board; with a total length of ten feet and wheelbase of 7.5 feet, a fold was engineered in, allowing lesser overall space to be taken up aboard the lunar module. A system of ropes, pulleys, and tapes was employed enabling the two astronauts to lower the LRV from its bay, with the design automatically folding the vehicle out and locking itself into place.The range of the vehicles was limited by an operational decision; should the LRV have broken down at any point, it would have to be in a distance where the astronauts could still have walked back to the lunar module with a margin of safety. Each LRV was built to seat two astronauts, plus carry equipment such as radio and radar, sampling equipment and tools, plus the all important tv cameras, which were later used to show the ascent of the final Apollo mission from the moon.
The second and third missions using the moon buggies saw range vary substantially from the first with Apollo 15. LRV 001 covered a total of 27.76 kilometres during a total on moon driven time of just over three hours and reached a maximum distance from the landing module of five kilometres. Apollo 16’s mission saw more time but less distance, with 3 hours 26 minutes for 26.55 kilometres. Apollo 17 upped the ante, with an extra hours worth of travel time and a whopping 35.9 kilometres driven and a maximum distance from the landing module of 7.6 kilometres.All up, in a space of seventeen months, these craft were designed and engineered and built with a 100 percent non failure rate. Even with a wheel guard coming loose after Cernan bumped it during Apollo 17’s mission failed to cause any real issue, apart from the two occupants being covered in more dust. And with four being built, the fourth being cannibalised once the Apollo program at Apollo 18 was scrapped, the three survivors, located at the landing sites for Apollo 15, 16, and 17, must be, indeed, the rarest cars in the world. Only when mankind eventually colonises the moon will they then be touched again by human hands.