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Off-Road Driving That’s Out Of This World

A lot of us have discovered the joys of off-road driving.  Plenty of modern vehicles come with AWD capacity so you can do a little bit of off-roading of some sort – or so you can get the extra traction that a four-paw provides. There are plenty of very desirable 4x4s out there with all sorts of this and that to help them do better in the rough stuff. But no matter how good your Nissan Pathfinder or your Skoda Yeti  is, there are some vehicles that are a lot snazzier than that.

lunarroverGood-bye Land Rover , hello Moon Rover.  The Apollo Lunar Rover must be one of the quirkiest and most famous of all the vehicles designed by General Motors (and a handful of others), although you are never, ever going to get to drive one.  Only a handful of people, all from the USA and the former USSR have driven about as far off the road as you can get, going for a wee jaunt about on the surface of the moon before the manned moon landings were scrapped.

So what’s the Lunar Rover like?

The styling of the Lunar Rover is somewhat reminiscent of an old-school farm tractor.  Keeping the weight to a minimum was in the design brief, as was the ability to fold the car up for storage (now there’s an idea we could try to apply more widely to avoid parking problems), so flash-looking body kit was out of the question. Aluminium trim was very much in evidence, however.  There was also no need for climate control – all that was provided by the space suits. You could say that it was designed for maximum visibility and the whole cabin was one big sun roof, moon roof or possibly Earth roof. It did have a seatbelt that used Velcro to overcome the problems that would occur with inertia reels and the like in one-sixth of the earth’s gravity. The Lunar Rover has seating for two, with both seats being fully foldable and with a shared armrest. The steering “wheel” is a multifunction joystick.

The Lunar Rover was a very early example of an electric vehicle, which does leave one wondering why this technology was pretty much ignored for terrestrial vehicles during the 1980s and 1990s. It was powered by a pair of 36-volt non-rechargeable batteries with a life of 121 ampere-hours each for a total range of 92 km.  The wheels were 23 inch aluminium jobs and the tyres had a chevron tread for extra traction. They weren’t your pneumatic rubber jobs, either: they had a mixture of zinc, steel and aluminium. You could call them the ultimate run-flats.

Performance-wise, the Lunar Rover is no speed freak, with a top design speed of 13 km/h. However, this speed was exceeded by Eugene Cernan of the USA, who holds the current lunar land speed record of 18 km/h.

The handling, however, is excellent.  For a start, the suspension is superb: double horizontal wishbone with upper and lower torsion bars and a damper unit between the chassis and upper wishbone.  The front and rear wheels have separate steering controls, allowing the front and rear wheels to turn in opposite directions for a tighter turning circle, although the driver can select to steer with front or rear wheels only as needed.  Each wheel had its own separate drive unit and each wheel could freewheel if needed. Ground clearance is 36 cm.

Navigation, information and communication systems are also brilliant – modern cars are only just starting to catch up with this 1970s model.  Navigation used a combination of the odometer and a directional gyro, plus a sun/shadow monitor to get the right heading. Communications involved two TV cameras, another camera (with film) and several antennae for communication with the Lunar Module. Display panels inform the driver of the current speed, heading, pitch, and power and temperature.

You can see the Lunar Rover in this clip:

The Lunar Rovers (only four were made) were used on three Apollo lunar missions and were left behind on the moon each time (have a look here to see the exact spots). However, if you’re really, really desperate to drive about as far off the road as you can get, there is still hope, but your window of opportunity is closing rather rapidly, if it’s not too late already. The volunteers for the Mars One one-way trip to Mars will get Martian Rovers to drive in as they spend the rest of their lives on the Red Planet.

I think I’ll stick to off-roading in the other half’s Nissan work ute.

Safe and happy driving,

Megan

5 comments

  1. Greg says:

    Hi Megan -great article! Well researched and informative.
    But in para 2 you say “Only a handful of people, all from the USA and the former USSR have driven about as far off the road as you can get…”
    Which cosmonauts got to drive the Lunar Rover, and when?

    Regards

    May 13th, 2015 at 11:01 am

  2. Megan says:

    Actually, the cosmonauts got to drive the Soviet equivalent of the Lunar Rover. Perhaps another post is needed to give the specs of that one!

    May 18th, 2015 at 6:46 am

  3. John says:

    No cosmonaut has been to the moon. Do you mean they drove a prototype on Earth?

    May 19th, 2015 at 11:30 am

  4. Megan says:

    Looks like I need to do some more research! Thanks for reading, commenting and pulling me up on inaccuracies.

    May 26th, 2015 at 6:44 am

  5. Alan Wardrop says:

    Nice article. However the lunar rover was not a particularly early electric vehicle. Check your history – there were electric vehicles 140 years before then, from the 1830’s. And up to the early 1900’s outsold petrol cars.

    June 1st, 2015 at 5:26 pm