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Book Review: Across the Airless Wilds

July 9, 2021
A chronicle of the conception, design, manufacture and use of the Lunar Roving Vehicle on NASA’s final three Apollo missions.

Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings, a book written by Earl Swift, takes a deep dive into NASA’s Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which was used on the last three Apollo Missions (Apollo 15, 16, and 17). This well-researched and fascinating tale describes the failures, breakthroughs, and missteps of NASA and its contractors as they try to add a two-person LRV to an already scheduled Apollo mission and meet tight budgetary and time constraints. For example, the LRV team had only 17 months to design and build the actual “moon buggy,” as well as the hardware needed to stow it on the lunar lander and deposit it on the surface of the moon ready to go. Design teams on similar NASA space- hardware projects had the luxury of three to four years to complete development.

The book follows several NASA scientists, managers, and engineers, including one-time Nazi Wernher von Braun, as they try to push the project forward while juggle changing requirements and the different technologies to meet those requirements, as well as a shrinking budget and the winding down of the Apollo program. It also tracks how various aerospace companies competed for contracts. Some eventual contractors did less than a stellar job in collaborating with NASA and other contractors once they were chosen. I’m sure similar shenanigans happen in other NASA programs, but they don’t often become widely known.

The book also chronicles how various technologies and approaches were developed, tested, and debated, which is very interesting from a project management point of view. It also clearly explains many of the technologies the LRV team relied on to cut size and weight while improving reliability. For example, there were a host of wheel designs proposed for the rover. But at the time, the surface of the moon was an unknown, and designing for the unknown is difficult at best. But after testing competing concepts, NASA seems to have made an enlightened choice based on the LRV’s actual performance on the moon.

In the book, the author includes a lengthy section that recounts in detail what astronauts did with the LRVs on the three Apollo missions, including where they went and why, the problems they had, and how they tried to solve them. It includes lots of dialog between astronauts and Mission Control that really highlights the adventure of it all and the potential dangers they were facing.

Anyone interested in space exploration or engineering will find this book a worthwhile read.

Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings (372 pages, $28.99, is published by HarperCollins Publishing and written by Earl Swift.

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