Face to Face With NASA's Lunar Rover VehicleS

It makes one horsepower. It’s the only car that’s ever been driven beyond Earth. The moon buggy was one of many great moments in Hungarian-American engineering and, for a day, it showed up in Budapest.

Face to Face With NASA's Lunar Rover VehicleS

Unfortunate geopolitical circumstances may have prevented Hungary proper from having much of a car industry—aside from our weirdly awesome microcars, like the pig’s-blood-and-chicken-feathers Fesztivál—but the global car industry would have turned out quite differently if not for the creative input of some strategically placed Hungarians. It was a pair of Hungarian engineers, for instance, Donát Bánki and János Csonka, who designed the carburator. The Ford Model T? Hungarian again. Just like Ferenc Szisz, the winner of the first Grand Prix ever held, and Ferenc Anisits (the first husband of my aunt Anikó!), who designed BMW’s diesel engines. But the Hungarian engineer who took car technology the furthest was a third Ferenc.

Face to Face With NASA's Lunar Rover VehicleS

Furthest as in a quarter million miles from Earth.

Earth cars may be American, German, Japanese, and Italian, but when it comes to extraterrestrial cars, Hungarians rule the market in a way that would make Alfred P.

Face to Face With NASA's Lunar Rover VehicleS

Sloan smile. For the three cars which have ever left the surface of the Earth—the Lunar Rover Vehicles aboard Apollos 15, 16, and 17—were designed by Ferencs Pavlics at NASA, who left the country at the age of 28 after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Already a trained and talented mechanical engineer, he found work at GM’s research division in Detroit, then made the jump to NASA in the ‘60s.

While perhaps eclipsed in horsepower by Corvettes and Camaros—the Lunar Rover Vehicle had to make do with a total of one horsepower, a quarter each from four

Face to Face With NASA's Lunar Rover VehicleS

electric motors mounted in each aluminum wheel—the moon buggy was quite an ingenious design. It could carry 2.3 pounds for every one of its slender 463 pounds for a total payload of 1,080 pounds. It folded up into three parts for storage in the Apollo Lunar Module’s cramped compartments. And it greatly increased the distance Apollo astronauts could travel around their spaceship: The three LRV’s covered a total of 56 miles on the three missions they were put into use.

Top speed? Top speed was officially 8 mph, which didn’t stop Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan from hooning the buggy all the way to 11 mph. His speed record has yet to be broken.

All three rovers were left on the Moon, but various models and mockups exist, and it was one of these mockups which was installed last week right here in Budapest, on the sidewalk under our publisher Gawker Media’s local offices.

Face to Face With NASA's Lunar Rover VehicleS

It is a remarkably small, fragile-looking thing—then again, it never had to contend with vicious speeds or, for that matter, an atmosphere. Operated with deliciously analog instruments and a big joystick fit for clunky spacesuit gloves, it must have been a joy to drive, every inch of ground covered virgin road. On Apollo 16, duct tape was involved.

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The people of Budapest stopped to look, perhaps unaware that here was something their kind in particular and mankind in general used to be capable of producing, a car for the heavens, a space buggy. Naturally, kids loved it, walking right up to the crowd control barriers. Then night fell and a day later the space car was gone.

Face to Face With NASA's Lunar Rover VehicleS

Photo Credit: NASA (1, 2) and the author