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Review: Lunar and Planetary Rovers

Lunar and Planetary Rovers: The Wheels of Apollo and the Quest for Mars
by Anthony Young
Springer-Praxis, 2007
softcover, 305 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-387-30774-5

The past month has been a particularly good one for extraterrestrial rovers. Earlier this month NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, marked their third anniversary of landing on the surface of the Red Planet. Intended to operate for only a 90-day prime mission, the two spacecraft have now exceeded that requirement by a factor of ten, and while not in factory-new condition anymore (like the problem that caused one of Spirit’s six wheels to seize up), continue to move across the surface, returning data. In addition, images by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released earlier this month appear to show the final resting place of Spirit and Opportunity’s predecessor, Sojouner, which roamed around the Mars Pathfinder landing site in 1997. These rovers, though, are hardly the first nor necessarily the most important wheeled spacecraft developed during the Space Age, as Anthony Young recounts in his new book Lunar and Planetary Rovers.

The best-known rovers, at least prior to Spirit and Opportunity, were the lunar rovers developed by NASA and driven by astronauts on the final three Apollo lunar landing missions in 1971 and 1972. While the vehicle looked superficially similar to a terrestrial dune buggy, the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), as it was officially, was as much a feat of engineering as the spacecraft and rockets that delivered the rover to the surface. The vehicle had to be lightweight and foldable, like a folding bicycle, so it could be stowed within the lunar lander, yet also easily deployed by spacesuited astronauts once on the Moon. These requirements, as well as the conditions of the lunar environment, and coupled with an aggressive development schedule (Boeing won the contract to develop the LRV in late October of 1969 and had to deliver the first LRV by early 1971) certainly did not make it easy for engineers to develop a working vehicle—at one point in 1970, Young notes, NASA considered canceling the contract because Boeing had fallen behind schedule and overbudget. Despite those difficulties, though, Boeing and NASA came through with a vehicle that worked exceedingly well on those three Apollo missions.

Much of Lunar and Planetary Rovers is devoted to the development and use of the LRV. Young discusses the design and construction of the rovers in great detail, and gets insight on the project from some of the engineers and managers involved with the project. The book also includes one chapter each about Apollos 15, 16, and 17, focusing on the use of the rover during those missions: where it traveled, how it performed, and any problems encountered. These chapters are augmented by interviews with some of the astronauts from those missions, who in general were extremely pleased with the performance of the rovers. “It handled very well,” said Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander. “I didn’t have any problems with it.”

At one point in 1970, Young notes, NASA considered canceling the contract for the lunar rover because Boeing had fallen behind schedule and overbudget.

The final sections of the book depart from the Apollo program and focus on the development of the Martian rovers, from the early prototype work at JPL in the 1980s and 1990s to the flights of Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity, as well as the even-larger Mars Science Laboratory rover scheduled for launch in 2009. The book does not go into the same level of detail about these rovers as it does on LRV; more detailed first-person accounts about those missions are provided in the books Sojourner by Andrew Mishkin and Roving Mars by Steve Squyres (see “Review: recalling Sojourner”, The Space Review, December 22, 2003; and “Review: Roving Mars”, The Space Review, August 29, 2005). Young closes by examining the potential future role for robotic and human rovers on the Moon and Mars as part of the Vision for Space Exploration.

One minor disappointment with this book is that it is very much US-centric, with little information about rover missions flown or planned by other countries. Recall that the first rover to travel on the Moon was not the LRV but the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 1, a robotic mission that landed on the Moon in November 1970. The book provides only a two-page discussion about Lunokhod 1 and the later Lunokhod 2 in an appendix authored by Ronald Creel. There is no discussion about the little-known small tethered rovers the Soviets included on their failed Mars 2 and Mars 3 landers in 1971, nor about ESA’s plans to develop a rover for its ExoMars mission early next decade.

One thing that history makes clear, from the LRV of the Apollo program to today’s Spirit and Opportunity, is that rovers have gone from useful to essential for planetary exploration. The surface mobility that rovers can provide, whether they’re ferrying robotic instruments or human geologists, drastically increases their scientific return over a fixed lander. Indeed, after the launch later this year of NASA’s Phoenix mission—a fixed lander without a rover—it seems likely that nearly all future Mars landers will have some sort of rover component. NASA has also made it clear such vehicles will play a key role in the human exploration of the Moon, be they direct descendants of the LRV or larger pressurized vehicles capable of long-duration expeditions. And, as Lunar and Planetary Rovers demonstrates, such future vehicles and their users will owe a debt of gratitude to the LRV and its developers decades ago.