Electric Vehicles on the Moon

Over the last decade, engineering teams at electric vehicle makers like Tesla have finally broken through. It didn't happen overnight, but neither was it the first time that an electric vehicle had changed the world. Decades earlier, engineers tasked with a herculean feat had to rethink everything they had ever assumed about cars. They had to imagine new ways of developing cars, questioning everything from the wheels to the cab to the engine that made the whole thing run.

In the early 1960s, an EV revolution started to play out, not on America's roads but in her skies. Wernher von Braun, then Director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, had recruited the private sector for help developing a new type of vehicle, one that his astronauts could drive across the surface of the Moon. Bell Aerospace, Boeing, Brown Engineering, General Motors, Grumman, and Lockheed all made presentations, contributing to studies about such a vehicle.

Their studies, of course, were speculative because at the time, no one had ever been on the surface of the Moon.

After the first year of research, budget cuts then made their task even more daunting: each mission in the upcoming Apollo program would consist of a single launch, instead of the double launches first proposed during the Saturn program. That meant engineers working for von Braun and his private-sector associates had to design rockets that could carry the astronauts and the lunar vehicle.

Brown Engineering made substantial progress by drawing on already-available components whenever they could, focusing their innovation on the wheels, which scientists at Marshall predicted would have to deal with a surface that was light and unstable. Their solution was to wrap an inner tube with nylon – and to power each of the four wheels on the lunar vehicle with a battery.

Boeing, meanwhile, won the contract for the lunar vehicles, dubbed the Lunar Roving Vehicles, that would land on the Moon as part of Apollo 15, 16, and 17. They had to construct multiple versions of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, to accommodate for unknowns, including potential human error, differences between Earth-gravity testing and Moon-gravity usage, the effect of the Lunar Roving Vehicle on the Lunar Module, and the effect of the rocket launch on the Lunar Roving Vehicle's structure.

All told, the Lunar Roving Vehicle was ready within seventeen months from the official project start to the time of its first deployment. As astronaut Harrison Schmitt, of Apollo 17, said, "The Lunar Rover proved to be the reliable, safe and flexible lunar exploration vehicle we expected it to be. Without it, the major scientific discoveries of Apollo 15, 16, and 17 would not have been possible." The impetus, of discovery and exploration, set firmly on their shoulders, researchers and designers at Marshall and Boeing responded, solving history-making engineering problems from 365,000 miles away.