Do you have any idea what the most expensive new car in history is? You can forget your Bugatti Veyrons, LaFerraris and Lykan HyperSports, because the costs borne by their fortunate owners are nothing compared to those of a limited-production, four-wheel-drive, electrically powered off-roader that, for a short period of time, was not only the world's most expensive car but also its most famous.
It was known as a Rover, but not the kind that used to leave British motorists stranded by the roadside. It was the prefix “Lunar” that marked it apart as something utterly unique. Yes, you could accuse us of stretching the point beyond credibility by calling it a “car”, but if we break down the meaning of that word to its base meaning, that’s exactly what it was: a horseless carriage; one that could transport human operators and their payloads; one that had a wheel at each corner fitted with “tyres” and mudguards.
Like modern cars, the Lunar Roving Vehicle, to give it its full name, was fitted with forward- and rear-facing cameras and used satellite communication technology. It maximised available stowage space, with a compartment under its seats, but it had no steering wheel – simply a “hand controller” (in other words, a joystick). Minus its astronaut driver, it weighed just 204 kilograms and was designed for a maximum speed of 13kph. Having said that, Eugene Cernan reportedly managed 18kph, giving him the (unofficial) lunar land-speed record.
The most impressive figure relating to this vehicle, though, has to be its price. Limited to just four units, manufactured for what turned out to be the final three Apollo missions to the Moon – 15, 16 and 17 – during 1971 and 1972, most of us know it as the “moon buggy”, and it cost Nasa US$38 million to develop, which works out at roughly $224.2 million (Dh823.5 million) in today’s money. Of the four made, three were used on lunar missions – there was no return ticket – and the fourth, once Nasa’s programme was scrapped, was used for spare parts.
Why, though, did Nasa feel the need to develop such a vehicle? The answer is very simple: the agency needed its astronauts to further explore the Moon’s surface, and they were extremely limited when it came to range while bouncing around on foot. A car for getting farther away from the Lunar Module seemed the logical way forward.
Its design and development phase was extremely short, lasting just 17 months, before the LRV was pressed into action. It wasn’t called the Space Race for nothing, when considering how quickly these kinds of technologies were rushed through. When it came to roving around the surface of the Moon, the Russians had already beaten the Americans to it when the LRV was being developed.
The unmanned Soviet vehicle, Lunokhod 1, was dismounted via a ramp from Luna 17 on November 17, 1970, and spent 10 months travelling, via remote control, across about 10 square kilometres of the Moon's surface, sending geological data back to its terrestrial controllers. Lunokhod 1 was an extraordinary-looking machine, almost insect-like, with eight wheels, an oval-shaped body and what appeared to be pincers up front but were actually tools for digging, probing and scooping up the terrain. It was also solar-powered, harnessing the Sun's energy during daylight hours, and was kept warm in the freezing temperatures of the night using a radioisotope heater.
Not to be outdone, Nasa was busy evaluating potential partners for the LRV programme contract, and, understandably, turned to contenders within the automobile industry, including Chrysler. Boeing ended up securing the deal, although General Motors was brought on board to develop the LRV’s electric motors, its suspension and wheels.
Boeing’s expertise in developing aircraft was brought into play in every stage of the LRV’s design. The vehicle needed to be built from the most lightweight materials possible, while still affording enough structural strength for the vehicle to carry a payload, withstand the physical stresses of driving over rocks and rough surfaces, as well as the enormous forces exerted upon it during launch from Earth and touchdown on the Moon. And let’s not forget the extreme temperature variations it would need to cope with, all while being 100 per cent reliable. It was a tough assignment.
It certainly was lightweight, as mentioned previously, tipping the scales at 204kg. Each wheel was powered by an electric motor that developed a quarter of one horsepower, with two non-rechargeable, 36-volt batteries providing the juice. It was easily manoeuverable, too, having four-wheel steering; it could perform a complete U-turn within a radius of three metres and it was strong enough to carry more than twice its own weight. Nasa’s approach to employee safety meant the LRV was fitted with seat belts, and there was plenty of instrumentation, so the operators could receive constant streams of information relating to their bearings and distance from the Lunar Module. There was also a handbrake, a navigational gyroscope that was orientated in relation to the Sun and a television camera that relayed live footage to Earth, which could be operated remotely by Mission Control.
Some conspiracy theorists have suggested that this is all fake, because, they say, there’s no way that a 3.1-metre by 2.3-metre buggy with chunky wheels and all its other paraphernalia could be transported within the confines of the Lunar Module. But they’re wrong. You can find film footage of a demonstration on the internet in which Nasa’s engineers and scientists lower a hatch underneath the Lunar Module to reveal an LRV. Cleverly packaged, it appeared to be folded up with its wheels tucked away – things the astronauts would lock into place simply and quickly.
The expeditions taken by the astronauts on-board the LRV were called Extra-Vehicular Activities, and although one or two problems reared their heads during the three missions they were used (in one instance, a mudguard severed and the LRV’s wheel showered the occupants with moon dust), they performed with remarkable reliability. But had Nasa not developed new spacesuits in time, which allowed astronauts to bend over and kneel, the LRV would never have seen action. As it was, they could be driven for up to 90km – on one battery in case of emergency – and the EVAs went without a hitch. The LRV was, when all is said and done, a vital life-support machine for those who used it.
What was the LRV like to drive, though? Mike Neufeld, a curator in the space-history division at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington told the website Space.com that it “was a very elegant little vehicle” that drove relatively well, considering the rocky and dusty terrain. “They weren’t driving on flat land – it was more like a dirt buggy than anything else,” he said. “It didn’t travel that fast, but for the astronauts who drove it, it seemed like it was exciting and fast. It was a pretty bouncy ride. Even flat-looking terrain on the Moon is not very flat, because there are so many crater pits, so it would have been a fairly exciting ride.”
Neufeld also pointed to the fact that the LRV reignited public enthusiasm for the Apollo space programme. "Overall public interest had declined after Apollo 11," he remarked. "The public was becoming more and more blasé. Apollo 15 provided a blip upwards in public interest. Part of it was because the landing site was so much more attractive, and there were also more television broadcasts from the Moon. But the rovers were definitely a part of that. The public took a lot of interest in this new capability that the astronauts had."
But what of the LRV’s legacy? Were the technology and engineering that had been lavished on it laid to waste or were lessons learnt during its design and use valuable for other generations? You only need consider the Space Exploration Vehicle that Nasa has developed at its Johnson Space Center to see that the LRV is still influencing design today.
Originally designed for Nasa's Constellation programme, which ran from 2005 until 2009 and was supposed to send man back to the Moon, the SEV looks to be far more advanced than the Apollo missions' LRV – and indeed it is. It features an enclosed, pressurised cabin, and moves on 12 wheels to give greater articulation, but it owes much of its technical brilliance to the humble LRV, the engineers behind the SEV having closely worked with Harrison Schmitt during its design. Schmitt, a former astronaut, actually drove an LRV during the Apollo 17 mission, which ended up being the last to the Moon.
Lucien Jenkin, one of the engineers on the SEV project, says the original LRV definitely left its mark on the new vehicle. “We wanted to take all the lessons learnt from the Apollo and Mars rovers, and combine all that together, but also challenge conventional wisdom,” he told Space.com. “With the SEV, we built what we call a feature-rich vehicle, so things like cargo, space and other creature comforts. We wanted to keep it simple but move it forward.”
While Nasa’s Constellation might be dead in the water, there’s still an insatiable desire on the part of mankind to explore outer space and visit other moons and planets. So perhaps it’s not surprising to find that the engineering teams behind the SEV are carrying on with the development of vehicles for use in the future.
“We have to stay away from the policy and keep our nose to the grindstone,” said Jenkin. “We want to keep developing a rover that is in America’s garage, so when it’s time for us to go to another heavenly body or another planet, America will be ready with a vehicle.”
Perhaps, on future missions, the astronauts will be able to return to Earth with their vehicles, because the three LRVs are still up there, still Moon-bound – and no doubt in need of a good wash. The most expensive cars ever made are now nothing more than lunar scrap.