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An Electric Car that's Out of this World (Literally)

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On: Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 12:59PM | By: Bill Wilson

An Electric Car that's Out of this World (Literally)

Electric vehicles (EVs) have been in widespread use for only a few years. Yet they have proven themselves capable of going anywhere a conventional automobile can while consuming zero fossil fuels. One EV, however, has shown that it can go somewhere that no gas-powered vehicle can go: the moon. That’s the remarkable feat behind the story of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), known to most people as “the moon buggy.”

In 1965, a group of scientists gathered to discuss details of the upcoming Apollo missions, which were intended to safely transport human beings to the moon’s surface and back again. One concern was enabling astronauts to travel around the lunar surface without having to expend their space suits’ limited energy reserves. Wernher Von Braun, the head of America’s space program at the time, felt that the crews would need a vehicle to get them around the alien world in reasonable amounts of time.

Competing teams drew up plans for the design, which NASA officials reviewed before deciding on the one that would become the LRV. To meet the mission’s stringent requirements, the final version had to have the following capabilities:

• Its tires had to be exceptionally rugged yet lightweight. To achieve this, builders used mesh steel instead of rubber for the wheels exteriors.

• It had to be able to withstand the wildly fluctuating temperatures on the moon’s surface, which range from about 225° F during the day to around -200° F at night.

• It had to be able to carry a variety of scientific instruments and audio/video equipment.

• It had to work in the moon’s airless environment. As an internal combustion engine needs oxygen, this meant that the moon buggy had to be an EV.

The LRV was built by a team of specialists over a 17-month period. The first of three identical models was launched aboard the Apollo 15 in July 1971. It was powered by four ¼hp motors, one for each wheel. Energy was supplied by 36-volt silver-zinc potassium hydroxide batteries, which for the time were state of the art. Once they were exhausted they could not be recharged, which limited how much the crews could use the LRV.

Maximum speed was an official eight mph, although John Young achieved a speed of 11 mph during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Given that the buggy could easily flip over in the moon’s weak gravity, this is thought to be as fast as anyone should drive on the lunar surface.

The LRV had a TV antenna mounted on its front to send coverage of its journeys back to earth. Viewers at home had the opportunity to see astronauts perform a variety of experiments during their missions. The buggy was 10 feet long and would weigh about 500 lbs. on earth.

The LRV was a spectacular success overall. The only mechanical trouble occurred during the Apollo 17 mission, during which one of the front fenders came off. This had the potential of exposing the buggy’s interior workings to dust, which would have caused a breakdown. The astronauts improvised a solution by wrapping a map of the moon’s surface over the damaged area. They then continued driving around.

Sadly, the astronauts didn’t have the fuel needed to bring their beloved vehicle back with them from the moon. The LRV had to be left on that world’s lonely surface. It sits there to this day, awaiting the next group of visitors from its home planet. In an age during which EVs were a fringe concept, the moon buggy proved what a battery-powered vehicle could do, on earth or beyond.

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