This is the 27th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
One day in early 1969, two engineers from General Motors stood in the corridor just outside the office of NASA rocket maestro Wernher von Braun, in Huntsville, Alabama, holding what looked like a toy car.
Huntsville was home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, headquarters for the effort to design and test the biggest rockets the world had ever seen, including the Saturn V, which sent Apollo to the Moon.
As it happened, in a bureaucratic quirk, Marshall was also in charge of “Moon mobility” vehicles—Moon cars. Lunar rovers.
The two GM engineers outside von Braun’s office that day were Sam Romano and Ferenc Pavlics, and they had come to Huntsville in a last-ditch effort to persuade NASA that the Apollo astronauts had to have a car on the Moon for at least some of the Apollo missions.
It was late to be making that argument: The first Moon landing was just weeks off. NASA had also shelved rover development several years earlier. In the early 1960s, NASA had developed elaborate lunar rovers whose size rivaled that of a modern Honda Odyssey minivan. But the agency canceled the projects because the rovers were too big, too heavy, and too costly.
Romano and Pavlics were so determined that the astronauts have a Moon vehicle that they kept working, using GM’s own money, even after NASA decided not to send any kind of car to the Moon.
“I decided it can be done, it should be done, and we want to do it,” said Romano. “If there’s going to be a vehicle on the Moon, it’s going to be a General Motors vehicle, and I’m going to make sure it happens.”
The men quietly talked to engineers at Grumman, where the lunar module was being designed and built, and got the dimensions of a storage compartment on the outside of the lunar module that was empty, and that they could use to stow a lunar vehicle if they could design one to fit.
The whole idea was silly on its face: That compartment was shaped like a tall wedge of pie, five feet wide at the wide end, five feet tall, and five feet deep, narrowing to a point. An odd shape, and they would be trying to design a vehicle that could somehow fit into a space no bigger than the trunk of a typical Earth car—while also being useful once it was on the Moon.
Pavlics had designed an almost magical system for folding up the car like an elaborate metal origami. The seats folded down, and the front end of the rover was hinged and folded flat onto the center of the vehicle—wheels, suspension, and all. The rear end did the same, like a pool lounge that could be folded flat. Once front and rear were folded into the center, the wheels unlocked and angled in as well, to make a package in the shape of that wedge storage compartment.
That day in early 1969, Romano and Pavlics had brought with them what looked like a child’s toy car, with the lines of a sleek, open-topped dune buggy. It was, in fact, a scale model of the lunar rover they wanted to send to the Moon. Pavlics had built an 18-inch radio-controlled scale model, which motored along using batteries and was finished with meticulous detail, including seats sewn by his wife.
As he was completing the model, Pavlics noticed that his young son’s latest GI Joe was a new version—”Astronaut GI Joe”—wearing a shiny Mercury spacesuit. For the trip to Huntsville, Pavlics had borrowed Astronaut GI Joe and put him in the little rover’s driver’s seat. The men set the model down in the corridor outside von Braun’s office. “I guided the little model with radio control into his office,” said Pavlics, “right to his desk. He was on the telephone, looking at what was coming into his office.”
The NASA rocket chief, who was also director of the Marshall center, immediately hung up. “What have we here?” he asked.
Said Romano, “That gave us the opportunity to tell him what we could do.”
A half hour later, von Braun was convinced. He slapped his hand on his desk with determination and said, “We must do this.”
Romano and Pavlics, by sheer will and their captivating motorized Moon car, had just changed the history of space exploration.
Just weeks later, von Braun created a project office to oversee the creation of a lunar rover. It was April 1969, just three months before Apollo 11, ridiculously late to imagine adding something as complicated as a car to the Moon flights. Spaceships, spacesuits, experiments, procedures—not only were they all designed, built, tested, and flight-qualified, but the astronauts had been practicing with their Moon equipment for months or years.
But von Braun was true to both his word and his influence. A quick competition was run to select companies to design and build the rover. GM won the right to design and engineer the rover, working with Boeing, which built the GM design.
The ramp-up to get the work done was astonishing: Romano and Pavlics’s group of a half-dozen expanded to a team of 400 within weeks, with Pavlics as the chief engineer.
The lunar rover, which would unfold out of the side of the lunar module and plop onto the surface of the Moon, almost ready to drive, ultimately weighed 460 pounds, including the batteries that powered it, and including a color TV camera, seat belts for the astronauts, and four quarter-horsepower electric motors (one driving each wheel). The rover was 10 feet long and 6 feet wide, and it could carry 1,050 pounds of astronauts, gear, and rocks across the surface of the Moon at 8 mph.
The rover project, completed in a hectic 17 months, wasn’t cheap. It cost $38 million total in the early 1970s ($240 million today), and each of the four flight rovers individually cost $1.5 million ($9.5 million today). Three of these went to the Moon; the fourth was reserved for spare parts.
The first Moon road trip had Apollo 15 lunar module pilot Jim Irwin in the observer seat and commander Dave Scott at the wheel. The rover was operated with a single joystick control that worked exactly as we’ve come to know them: Push it forward and the rover went forward; the harder Scott pushed, the faster it went. He angled the stick left and right to turn the rover, which had innovative dual front and rear steering to give it maximum maneuverability on the bumpy lunar surface.
The rover brought exuberance, even joy, to lunar exploration. Within minutes of heading off on their first expedition, Irwin and Scott were laughing with the sheer fun of driving on the Moon. “Man, this is really a rocking-rolling ride,” Scott said to Mission Control.
In 15 minutes of driving on that first trip, Scott and Irwin went farther than any of the previous three Apollo landing crews had been able (or allowed) to walk in hours on the surface. On that first jaunt alone, one of three using the rover, Scott and Irwin stayed out for two hours, driving around, getting out, gathering specimens, filming geological features, then hopping back in the buggy and racing off to the next place. They not only covered terrain; the pair gave a nonstop narration of the geology they were seeing and that the rover’s camera was transmitting in real time back to Earth. The live TV coverage had a rapt audience of, among others, geologists and scientists who felt like they were looking over the shoulders of the lunar astronauts from the back seat, as it were, seeing an astonishing display of never-before-seen alien geology.
“Keep talking, keep talking,” Mission Control’s Joe Allen said. “Beautiful description.”
Apollo 15, 16, and 17 each carried a rover, and the two-man crews ended up being able to explore wide swaths of terrain. Apollo 16 astronaut John Young took a few minutes to put the rover through its full paces—maximum speed, tight turns, dirt flying—to show the engineers what the rover could do, in a test that became known as the “lunar rover grand prix.”
The significance of the rover was instantly appreciated: It was honored with its own U.S. postage stamp, issued on Earth while Apollo 15 was on the Moon.
Heading back to the lunar module from that first rover excursion, Scott and Irwin got going so fast down a lunar hill they accidentally did a sudden 180-degree spin in the rover, going in an instant from zooming downhill to being pointed back uphill.
It sent them both into gales of laughter, which Mission Control took a moment to appreciate. Said Scott to Mission Control, “Boy, I’ll tell you, Joe, this is a super way to travel.”
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).