Electric cars are all the rage these days thanks to an inexorable uptick in petroleum fuel prices. The Tesla Roadster seems to have received more passionately positive press than any other electric car. Designed with the aid of Lotus Cars, the Tesla Roadster is an all-electric sports coupe that boasts a range of over 200 miles on a single charge, a zero to 60 miles per hour (mph) acceleration time of less than four seconds, and a top speed of 125 mph. It clearly outclasses the most famous electric passenger car ever built in every category save one — the Tesla can’t reliably operate in a vacuum.
Score one for the Apollo lunar rovers. The iconic moon buggies had a top speed of about 17 mph, a maximum range of about 25 miles, and a zero to 60 acceleration of… well… they simply couldn’t go 60 mph. The lunar rovers were also pricey compared to the $92,000 Teslas. A total of four operational rovers — for Apollos 15, 16, and 17, as well as a “spare parts” model intended for Apollo 18 — came in at about $38 million. That said, there’s no reasonable debate about which electric car was more recognizable, more historically influential, and — above all — more likely to impress your date. The lunar rovers win in a landslide.
No less an authority than Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt — the penultimate man to walk on the moon — lauded the lunar rover thusly: “Without it, the major scientific discoveries of Apollo 15, 16, and 17 would not have been possible; and our current understanding of lunar evolution would not have been possible.” On Apollos 11, 12, and 14, astronauts were limited to surveys within walking distance of the lunar modules, a distance of a scant few meters when you consider the unwieldiness and limited air supplies of Apollo-era lunar spacesuits. The rover on Apollo 17 set the bar by covering more than 22 miles of lunar terrain, bringing back a startling volume of geological (or, if you prefer, selenological) data that continues to pay dividends.
Yet, for all their scientific and historic value, the lunar rovers were still cars — and ones built by the lowest bidding government contractor at that. The rovers had quirks, including a recurring part malfunction that plagued more than one Apollo mission and required some famous NASA improvisational engineering to repair onsite.
WHAT PROBLEM PART BROKE ON TWO LUNAR ROVERS?
What problem part broke on two lunar rovers during two Apollo missions, proving that even the most ingeniously engineered vehicles still suffer from the same maintenance woes as conventional automobiles?
Nothing gives a classic 1971 Apollo moon buggy more trouble than its fenders. During Apollo 16, astronaut John Young bumped the rear fender extension on his rover, breaking it off. Astronaut Gene Cernan broke off the same fender piece on the Apollo 17 rover when he bumped it with the handle of his hammer.
“Big deal,” you say. “It’s just a fender.” Well, that’s what Young and his fellow Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke thought when they broke the first fender. Of course, almost nothing on an Apollo mission was there for no reason, and the moon buggy fenders were no exception. The moon, as you may have heard, is covered with moon dust — the kind that gets kicked up something fierce when a quartet of metal-mesh tires spins over it. Young and Duke’s rover was thus covered in moon dust spray after the fender was lost. The dust obscured instruments and over-insulated the rover’s battery array, leading to overheating and lost efficiency. Put simply, losing the fender impeded the Apollo 16 rover’s mileage.
When the problem recurred on Apollo 17, Cernan and Schmitt had to at least attempt repairs. So, how do you reattach a fender in a near-total vacuum of extreme temperatures? Duct tape, of course. Sadly, not even duct tape was a match for the lunar dust, which prevented it from adhering properly to the rover and fender. Undaunted, Cernan and Schmitt attempted to build a new fender out of maps, lighting clamps, and more duct tape. This time, the repairs worked — so much so that the astronauts brought the “fender” back with them from the moon. The maps used to build the ad hoc fender are now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum — complete with abrasions from the moon dust they deflected when attached to the rover.
That’s not just some audacious automobile adaptation, it’s an ingeniously jury-rigged jolt of Geek Trivia.
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