A Deep Dive Into the 50-Year-Old Lunar Rover

For the first time ever, in July 1971, astronauts were able to drive across the surface of the moon. They used the Lunar Rover to accomplish this. The electric vehicle, or EV, would go on to inspire generations of scientists and engineers. That was 50 years ago. So, it is an appropriate time to go back and dive into the otherworldly vehicle’s specifics.

The development of the Lunar Rover

The Lunar Rover was an electric vehicle (EV).
Cernan is making a short check of the performance of the Lunar Rover during the Apollo 17 mission. | SSPL/Getty Images

Electric vehicles, or EVs, have been around for almost 200 years. But, none of them has achieved the attention that the Lunar Roving Vehicle, or LRV, did with the Apollo space programs. Indeed, the electric rovers that got that attention were no ordinary buggies. They were specially made for NASA by Boeing. They had undergone extensive development and testing to make sure that they would function properly once they reached the moon. This is what we know about them.

The Lunar Rovers would go on to transport the astronauts to different spots for lunar core sample extractions, rock collecting, and various tests. But, before all that, the scientists and engineers had to figure out how to get the rovers to the moon. They determined that the EVs would need to be lightweight and foldable in order to fit within the lunar module. 

Aluminum was the metal of choice to keep weight down. After deciding on that, the engineers went to work designing the Lunar Rover’s three-part chassis. It was designed to be hinged in the center. When unfolded, the aluminum-framed seats with nylon webbing also unfolded. The EV even had seatbelts, although they were made with velcro. 

The propulsion and maneuverability of the EV

The Lunar Rover EV had tires made from a mesh of piano wire and titanium treads.
The Lunar Rover EV had tires made from a mesh of piano wire and titanium treads | Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Scientists and engineers determined that the best way to motivate the buggies was through electric power. So, an electric 0.25 hp motor was on each of the four wheels. This made the Lunar Rover an EV with four-wheel drive. It was also designed as a four-wheel steering vehicle, meaning the rear tires turned as well as the front ones. 

Tires for the Lunar Rover are a different animal compared to what is on Earth’s roads today. They were not rubber. Instead, each of them was made from a woven mesh of zinc-coated piano wire. Upon the mesh, titanium treads were attached in a chevron pattern for traction through moon dust and rugged terrain. 

The lunar EVs await their next users

Apollo 15, 16, and 17 would each have a Lunar Rover onboard when they launched their missions. Upon departing the moon, each of the EV buggies was left behind. So, the rovers are still up there. In theory, their batteries could be swapped out, and the rovers would work again. 

The Lunar Rover is a remarkable machine. It is lightweight, foldable, electric powered, and easily assembled. All three of them successfully accomplished missions that were full of unknowns. As described by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,

“The lack of an atmosphere on the Moon, the extremes of surface temperature, the very small gravity, and many unknowns associated with the lunar soil and topography impose requirements on the LRV which had no counterpart in Earth vehicles and for which no terrestrial experience existed.”

The accomplishments of the first manned lunar transportation vehicles are quite amazing. It does not matter what they are called, Lunar Rovers, LRVs, moon buggies, or any other name, nothing on Earth can compare to their development and successful missions. It is no wonder that 50 years later, the world still remembers the EVs with admiration.