It was December 11, 1972, 45 years ago to the day. Astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt had just stepped out of the lunar lander. And thus began one of humanity’s greatest road trips.
Sure, the definition of a “road trip” is a bit vague, but when you’re thousands of miles from Earth and the nearest professional mechanic, the series of trips the crew of Apollo 17 made in the Lunar Rover has to qualify as one. Especially when you consider that they drove more than 22 miles in the thing, a trip which took four hours and 26 minutes.
NASA released the image up top today to help us visualize just how far that is. If you laid the whole thing over the island of Manhattan, you’d start out by the swanky apartments the Upper East Side, traverse all the way down to the tailors and knishes of the Lower East Side, head way back up to the townhouses of Chelsea before scooting past the USS Intrepid, and then way over to New Jersey and then a cut across Central Park to be home in time for liftoff.
If you were just riding the subway, that would probably take you an entire day.
Here’s what that looked like on the moon, with an actual photograph of the site taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter:
Those little tracks left by the Rover are still there on the Moon, 45 years later.
And like any road trip, it didn’t go off without a hitch, as NASA notes:
The hammer in Gene’s shin pocket has just caught under the right rear fender, ripping off the rearward extension. Gene remembers that, although the suit reduced his tactile sensitivity a great deal, he did feel the hammer catch but was unable to stop himself before the damage had been done. During Apollo 16, at Station 8 near the end of the second EVA, Charlie Duke and John Young were at the back of the Rover, near the right-rear fender, changing each other’s sample bags. Houston was looking at them with the TV. John had the hammer in his shin pocket and, as soon as Charlie finished changing his bag, started around the back of the Rover to go to his seat. John’s right leg - and, most likely, the hammer - caught on the fender and ripped it off. In his 1990 book, Moonwalker, Charlie inexplicably says that it was he who knocked the fender off but also adds that “it had happened so many times in training that we didn’t think anything of it.” A plausible explanation for this statement is that Charlie was remembering a training incident. Like the 17 crew, they soon realized that the loss of the fender would force them to spend far more time dusting and doing other housekeeping chores than they would have liked. Among other things, after the EVA they were both covered with dust and, despite efforts to clean themselves, took a great deal into the cabin. There, they had to wrap their suit legs in bags in an effort to keep the dust from fouling closures and, of course, in the process of getting out of the suits, they got their hands very dirty and, because they had no way to really clean themselves up, got dust on everything they touched.
Apollo 17 returned to Earth with over 200 pounds of moon rocks, thanks in large part to the Lunar Rover.
Not bad for a 22-mile trip.