Back in September I had a chance to get inside the Chariot, a prototype of the next-gen lunar rover being designed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
It’s a pretty wacky concept: Instead of just making a frame with wheels a la the original Apollo moon buggies, NASA is giving the lunar voyagers of 2020 a tricked-out RV.
This puppy comes equipped with six-wheel drive and an active suspension system, plus a full cabin with comfy seats, benches that double as beds, a pantry, a toilet, and enough juice to ride for 62 miles (100 kilometers) before heading home to recharge.
The idea is that a pair of astronauts could live in the rover wearing NASA-approved street clothes for up to two weeks. Their space suits ride on the back, attached so that moon walkers can slip in and out as needed to collect samples and snapshots from various lunar sites.
The current version of the Chariot is being field tested this weekend in Arizona, and while I couldn’t make the trip to the desert, I was able to use information collected on my Houston trip to whip up a preview piece on the craft.
NASA’s lead engineer for mobility, Robert Ambrose, gave me a ton of details on the vehicle and how it’s being designed, including some interesting tidbits that I didn’t have room for in the article.
One of the main points is that they’ve actually got two versions of the same prototype, one for road tests on Earth under normal gravity and one for testing how things work in one-sixth Earth’s gravity, which is what you experience on the moon.
Well, duh, I now say to myself. Considering gravity’s effects, the support and power you’d need to carry about 6,600 pounds (3,000 kilograms) of people and stuff through Houston is waaaaay more than what’s required to haul the same amount of payload across the Sea of Tranquility.
One version of the craft is therefore built to exact specifications of how it would operate on the moon.
But how will testers on Earth know what the vehicle is capable of if their model can’t handle the full expected stash? After all, Ambrose told me, “the Apollo rover [that drove on the moon] can’t even carry its own weight in 1G.”
Enter model number two, which is scaled to look and feel the same but still operate to its fullest potential on Earth.
… to this!
Also when I was in Texas, it was deep into hurricane season, and I had seen multiple signs on my trip to Johnson warning drivers to keep their gas tanks full.
Not four days after I left, Houston got slammed by Hurricane Ike, so I was pretty curious to know what NASA did to protect its probably expensive new toy during the tempest.
With Johnson situated right there on the coast, I was pretty sure the engineers had a plan they felt god about. But as luck would have it, Ike gave the rover crew an accidental test of the prototype’s mettle.
Before evacuating the space center ahead of the storm, workers separately covered the chassis and the cabin in protective bags and parked them both indoors.
Unfortunately, Ike’s winds ripped a 6-by-18-foot (1.8-by-5.5-meter) hole directly above the bagged chassis, Ambrose told me.
When employees were allowed back into Johnson, the rover team found the prototype “standing in a giant puddle covered in insulation and other debris that must have fallen 60 feet [18 meters],” he said.
The lunar rover chassis, seen in a model moon environment at Johnson
—Image courtesy NASA
Luckily the darn thing survived without a scratch—a testament both to the rover’s durability and to the packaging skills of NASA engineers. Living as I do in the D.C. metro area, maybe I need to make me some friends at the Goddard Space Center the next time I move to a new apartment.