Geek Trivia: A body (shop) in space

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?

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.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...