The breathless moments when Neil Armstrong struggled with the Apollo 11 Lunar Module safely to seek refuge in the sea of tranquility of the Near Lunar Face are what many remember most from the first crewed voyage of the man to the moon. But arguably, it was the last three largely ignored missions of the Apollo program that actually offered NASA and the research community the biggest leaps in science.
At least that’s the thesis behind Earl Swift’s Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the First Moon Landings. Swift, a successful non-fiction author and former reporter for The Virginian-Pilot, argues that these “lunar buggies,” as the media dubbed them at the time, allowed the moon walkers of Apollo 15, 16 and 17 to access the most scientifically important geological sites in the shortest possible time .
In fact, Swift writes that these latest Apollo missions have made the greatest progress when “the world was no longer suspended at every word the moon walkers say or at every step they take, on missions that we walk away from. remembers today vaguely ”.
What a difference it makes when astronauts have the opportunity to get a ground-level view of the lunar surface and explore its hills, hammocks, valleys, crater edges, and grooves.
While Swift doesn’t generally cover aerospace, his attention to historical detail in staging the events he covers in “Across the Airless Wilds” is what helps make the book so compelling. It is well documented, well written and revealing.
Swift writes that the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) was a “less is more” feat of engineering in which “its builders distilled everything essential to a land all-terrain vehicle to its indivisible minimum, its most iteration. small, lightest and most basic, then cropped Even further. “
With seats that looked like lawn chairs, Swift writes that the lunar buggy didn’t have a body, roof, steering wheel “or anything else other than the wheels, which typically define a car.”
The lunar buggies had to encounter the type of terrain that would immediately destroy even the best land all-terrain vehicles and weather temperatures that fluctuated between 250 degrees Fahrenheit above and below zero.
Swift makes no effort in noting that indeed Wernher von Braun “was a Nazi and SS card-carrying officer – likely an accomplice in the deaths of thousands of concentration camp prisoners – whose iconic WWII achievement was a ballistic missile designed to kill enemy Germany.
“Von Braun did not resist the employment of slaves and did nothing to alleviate the suffering that took place under his nose,” writes Swift. “His biographer, Michael J. Neufeld, speculates that he could have been prosecuted as a war criminal.
Yet von Braun was quietly admitted to the United States at the end of World War II and allowed to transform “into a God-fearing and patriotic Alabaman who reinvented his missile to transport stars and stripes to the moon,” as Swift writes. It is an episode in American history that is difficult to understand.
Even so, von Braun was largely responsible for inspiring the US space program as we know it. Swift notes that von Braun helped orchestrate a series of articles that appeared in Collier magazine in the early 1950s before the Soviet launch of Sputnik took America by surprise. One of those articles dealt directly with the idea of using some sort of traveling lunar mobile that could transport astronauts from one point on the lunar surface to another.
Apollo 15 landed in the Hadley-Apennines region with the now famous Hadley Rille, a magnificent gorge almost a mile wide and a thousand feet deep. Using the LRV-1, Apollo 15 astronauts Jim Irwin and David Scott reached the edge of the groove only thirteen minutes after starting their journey. And, if anything, this mission only served to reinforce the idea that seat belts are important even on the Moon. Irwin noted that the buggy rose and fell like a fleeing bronco and was fishtail like a speedboat when Scott attempted “high speed” turns at 6 mph.
Yet this lunar buggy allowed Scott and Irwin to collect a piece of volcanic anorthosite that is four billion years old. Dubbed the “rock of genesis,” it is arguably one of the oldest specimens astronauts have brought back and one that Swift says remains one of the most scientifically important in the entire Apollo program.
The Apollo 17 lunar module landed in the spectacular Taurus-Littrow Valley in December 1972. From there, astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt reached the outer limit of their safe radius, Swift notes, when they were nearly five miles from their lunar module on December 12, 1972.
“Cernan and Schmitt were on the verge of human travel as a species,” Swift writes. “By comparison, Roald Amundsen’s trip to the South Pole was a rush to the local grocery store.”
Once again, the book evokes the same regrets when looking at why the astronauts still haven’t returned for 50 years now. And it looks increasingly doubtful that NASA will meet its Artemis 2024 mission deadline to resume human lunar exploration.