Published December 19, 2012
It’s the most famous abandoned car, not in this world, but in the universe.
Forty years ago today, the crew of Apollo 17, Capt. Ronald Evans, Harrison Schmitt and mission commander Capt. Eugene Cernan, safely returned to Earth five days after departing the surface of the moon.
Until someone makes the return trip, Cernan’s name will be etched in the history books as not just the last man to walk on our celestial sister, but also the last to drive on it. Apollo 17 was one of three moon missions to bring along a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV,) still the coolest electric car ever made and one that gave the astronauts the ability to cover much more ground during their short stays than would’ve been possible on foot.
The 10-foot-long two-seater was built by Boeing with some help from General Motors. Despite its lightweight aluminum frame, it could carry double its 463 pounds in the low-gravity environment of the moon. It was powered on its journeys by two 36-volt battery packs and has a Delco electric motor in each of its wheels to provide all-wheel-drive and redundancy in case of any malfunctions. Wire mesh “tires” fitted with titanium treads provided traction and a little cushioning in the vacuum of space.
After unloading the fold-up vehicle from the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), Cernan and Schmitt literally hopped into it, thanks to the low gravity, fastened their lap belts, flipped a switch or two and were ready to go.
“There was no key. We weren’t worried about anybody stealing that automobile, especially the Soviets," recalled Cernan earlier today in an interview with FoxNews.com. "They were a quarter of a million miles away.”
The LRV is driven by a joystick-type controller between the seats that you simply push and pull to go forward and backward and roll side-to-side to turn the front wheels. Cernan said it could also be switched into four-wheel steering mode for very tight maneuvers.
“It never got stuck, but if it did, the two of us could just pick it up and turn it around,” Cernan said.
The LRV had a top speed of about 8 mph, but on one downhill run, Cernan set a relatively blistering lunar land speed record of 11.2 mph, and enjoyed it as much as driving one of the Corvettes he used to tool around Cocoa Beach in.
“It felt wonderful," he said. "You were bouncing around all the time. The only time you had four wheels on the ground was when you weren’t moving.”
One thing missing was the roar, or even whine of a motor. There’s no sound in space, of course, but Cernan doesn’t even remember hearing any noise resonating through his suit.
Over three days, the pioneering pair covered a total of 22.3 miles in the LRV, earning them a distance record, as well. They got to know the Taurus–Littrow valley they were exploring like the back of their hands and mostly got around using dead reckoning, or by following the markings that the LRV left on the surface. All the while, they knew that “if you crossed any tracks that weren’t yours you knew you were in real trouble.”
The main rule was not to drive so far that, in the event of a mishap, they wouldn't have enough oxygen in their tanks to walk back to base camp - the LEM. The furthest they went was about about five miles, and fortunately, they never had to hoof it back.
In fact, the only problem they ran into was when they were unloading the LRV from the LEM and Cernan accidentally knocked off part of a fender. On the moon, where lack of an atmosphere allows dust to kick up easily, a missing fender could lead to major problems for the communications equipment mounted on the LRV.
However, in what could be the most heroic gearhead moment of all time, Cernan created a makeshift fender by duct taping a couple of maps together and fastening them to the vehicle with a set of light clips. That handmade part is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum, the only bit of the rover to make it back to Earth.
Cernan said some of the finer details of his trip have faded over the years, but four decades later he remembers exactly where he parked his car before heading for home. And there’s a good chance you do, too.
“I left it about a couple of hundred feet from the LEM. I set it up with the camera that was mounted on it pointed at the lunar module," he said. "They controlled the television camera remotely from mission control and that’s where those pictures of the takeoff you see today come from.”
NASA tried the same move during Apollo 16, but Cernan said they forgot about the 1.5-second delay for the radio signals to get to it and panned the camera up to late to follow the ascent stage leaving the surface. The shot of Schmitt and him taking off is the only one of the six missions to the moon captured on video in full, which somehow seems fitting.
The LRV wasn’t the only thing he left behind, however. Cernan traced his daughter’s initials in the surface next to the right front wheel where they likely remain today.
He thinks the LRV is good to go, too, and figures if someone went up there with a new set of batteries, they could plug them in and go for a spin. You get the impression he wouldn’t mind being the one that did it if he had the chance.
“It is the epitome of a sports car convertible, isn’t it?”
Car enthusiasts like to argue, but it’s doubtful any would argue with him.