VICKSBURG, Miss. (July 20, 2019) – Fifty years ago, when Neil Armstrong took those first historic footsteps on the surface of the moon, one of the major tasks of his mission was to gather lunar soil and rocks to be studied back on Earth.
But even before the launch of the Apollo 11 mission that sent the first men to space, researchers at Waterways Experiment Station, known today as the Engineer Research and Development Center, were hard at work alongside NASA, preparing for future missions that would shape space exploration as we know it today.
WES scientists and engineers were among the first to test wheels for the Lunar Roving Vehicle or “Moon Buggy” that would one day be driven on the surface of the moon. Because of extreme conditions there— temperatures ranging from 250 degrees to -300 degrees Fahrenheit, low atmospheric pressure, and more— conventional tire configurations were ruled out as a possibility for the rover. So, three unorthodox wheel options were developed, and NASA sent them to Vicksburg for testing from 1969 until 1971.
When Armstrong returned from space, there wasn’t enough real lunar soil to be used for testing the lunar rover wheels, so WES scientists and engineers were forced to create their own. Using fine dune sand from the desert near Yuma, Arizona, mixed with crushed basalt from Napa Valley, California, the researchers were able to produce a soil that was cohesive and frictional, much like the material on the surface of the Moon.
Their simulated soil and testing allowed Apollo XV, the fourth manned mission to the Moon, to be the first mission that used a Lunar Roving Vehicle. On that operation, Astronauts James Irwin and David Scott made three drives and covered a total of 17.3 miles during the 19 hours, 7 minutes, and 3 seconds of extra-vehicular activity. From there, the Lunar Roving Vehicles were used in Apollo XVI and XVII missions.
“The Lunar Rover proved to be the reliable, safe and flexible lunar exploration vehicle we expected it to be,” said Astronaut Harrison Schmitt of Apollo XVII. “Without it, the major scientific discoveries of Apollo XV, XVI and XVII would not have been possible.”