Among the more enduring images of the Apollo missions are shots of astronauts nipping around the lunar surface on their Moon Buggy.
These basic vehicles were used on the last three missions – Apollo 15, 16 and 17 – and proved useful and reliable, transporting the two astronauts, instruments and collected samples.
Each made one trip per day over the three days of each mission. NASA prudently limited distance travelled from the lander to what an astronaut could walk should the rover break down. Maximum distance travelled from the lander was about 7.6 kilometres.
None broke down. All three rovers remain on the moon.
Now NASA is looking to a next-generation lunar rover for use by crewed moon missions and has issued a call to industry for ideas.
Tom Cremins, NASA associate administrator for strategy and plans, said it will soon release a request for information for an unpressurised lunar rover.
The vision is that these would be delivered robotically to the moon.
“We want that there when the first crews arrive and then be there subsequently to be able to be used potentially autonomously from the Gateway, to conduct operations and to add to the science objectives,” he said at the SpaceCom expo in Houston.
That request for information will be released in coming weeks. NASA has in mind eventually developing the rover through a public-private partnership.
NASA believes mobility to be crucial for exploration of the moon surface, either robotic or human.
It plans to develop a robotic rover, called Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to explore for ice deposits in craters at the moon’s south pole. That would land on the moon by way of a commercial launch in 2022. Other exploration rovers will follow around every two years.
Japan has expressed interest in contributing a larger pressurised lunar rover for later missions. Such a vehicle would allow longer expeditions and provide a basic habitat for crews on extended missions.
For the original Moon Buggy – a name derived from dune buggy – a number of US companies submitted their ideas and Boeing was selected as the prime contractor.
The finished vehicle massed 210 kilograms, with a wheelbase of 2.3 metres. It was naturally electric powered.
There was considerable innovation in achieving a design that was versatile, simple to operate and able to be folded for transport to the moon then readily reassembled by men in spacesuits.
The rover program cost US$38 million and resulted in four vehicles, which on some accounts makes them the most expensive in automotive history.
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