Driving On The Moon With Earl Swift

Sep 12, 2021

Across The Airless Wilds by Earl Swift

When you think of the Apollo moon missions, Apollo 11 probably comes to mind immediately - when Neil Armstrong was the first person to step foot on the moon.  But the later missions, where astronauts drove on the surface, made more discoveries than the previous landings, yet they’re often overlooked. 

WMRA’s Chris Boros asked Virginia Author Earl Swift about his memories of watching the missions as a kid.

Earl Swift

Earl Swift:  I turned 13 the day that Apollo 15 landed on the moon in July of 1971, and have very little recollection of the first three moon landings - 11 12 and 14.  But Apollo 15 I remember and I remember 16 and 17 as well.  And I remember them for one piece of transformative equipment that they carried aboard on those missions that changed the face of Apollo. And that of course was this tiny folding electric go-kart that could carry more than twice its own weight and was an amazing piece of engineering and the more I looked into it, the more I realized that those last three missions were, in fact, the culmination of the entire manned space program to that point.  Everything had led up, not to the moon landing of Apollo 11, but the last three flights- Apollo 15 through 17 where all the collected wisdom of the previous decade reached perfection. And yet those missions are completely overlooked today.

WMRA:  Let's talk about the vehicles that they drove. How did they work and what were they all about?

ES:  From the earliest days of planning for travel to the Moon, eventually we were going to have to figure out a way to get around other than walking. It would have very little power, one horsepower of power.  It would be made of aluminum and titanium. It would ride on wheels of wire mesh. And this thing would be driven kind of like a plane flies with a joystick between the driver and the astronaut riding shotgun. There was a trunk of sorts behind and they astronauts at side-by-side.

WMRA:  Talk about the astronauts who drove these machines. How did they describe the experience?

ES:  It was a handful to drive.  Charlie Duke told me that often there were two or more wheels off the ground – it would hit a bump and the wheels would come up and they’d kind of hang there for a while. Jim Irwin on Apollo 15 described it as a cross between a bucking bronco and a small boat in the choppy sea. Had they not had seat belts, they would have been ejected out of the thing in the first five minutes of driving.  But it beat walking.

Apollo 15 Rover
Credit NASA

WMRA:  What do you think the greatest discoveries were made as they drove around the Moon on those missions?

ES:  To really fully grasp that, you have to look at what was possible on foot.  Apollo 11 - Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, climbed down out of their lunar module, and all of their travels would fit inside a football field. The farthest either man ventured from the lunar module was 65 yards.  Apollo 12 – the astronauts walked in total about a mile and a half and the same goes for Apollo 14. What the rover brought was range.  The three missions using the rover traveled 56 miles in the thing.  On their very first drive, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin on Apollo 15 they outdistanced all three previous missions combined.  

WMRA:  I think for some people it's hard to imagine that we did all this with 1970s technology, just imagine what we would have today if we kept going back to the Moon.  It seems odd that we just stopped going.

ES:  Well, It is pretty fantastic that we were able to do what we did with the technology of the day. It is mind-boggling.  The rover was essentially a 1969 General Motors product. And I don't know if he's had any 1969 General Motors products?  Well, I’ve owned two of them – they were wonderful vehicles.  But if you were then to ask: Well would you drive them in an airless environment, when exposed to a constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and micrometeorites moving faster than bullets and trust that 1969 GM product to get you back to your only way home, I’d have to give that some thought.

WMRA:  It kind of feels like we're in a little bit of a space race right now. What are your thoughts on the recent space achievements?

ES:  You can see a space race developing with other countries.  What's more interesting to me is just the front and center role that private industry has taken on the American side. And I think it's good for us. And here we have three companies going head-to-head.  I think it'll be good for science and I'm excited by it.

WMRA:  Do you think with the help from one of these three companies or maybe all of them that we’ll one day have man and woman step foot back on the moon?

ES:  Oh, yeah. Sure. No question.

WMRA:  When? I want it now?

ES:    Well it’s pretty clear that it’s not going to be in 2024.  But I think you’ll see it.  Sure.