Polaris Industries specializes in building off-road vehicles. The moon’s lunar surface certainly qualifies as being off the road.
Put those two things together and the decision to build a working replica of the original NASA Lunar Rover Vehicle (LRV) was an easy one to make.
At least, that’s the way Polaris Industries Manager of Manufacturing Engineering, Bryan Ogle, viewed it when his company was approached about building a replica of the vehicle for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.
The approach to the pitch, along with a subtle pitch, also didn’t hurt.
“They did bring some big guns with them,” Ogle said with a smile. “They brought Saverio “Sonny” F. Morea, the program manager (of the original LRV), three of the engineers and an astronaut, Robert Stewart. Being in the room with those people was just amazing. We’d read about them in history books.”
Mayor Tommy Battle’s pitch for the LRV came in 2015 when Polaris first announced its intentions to build a Huntsville plant. The Mayor presented company executives with a toy model of the Lunar Rover with the suggestion that building one for NASA could be in the company’s future.
Polaris debuts Lunar Rover Replica
The Polaris replica of NASA’s original LRV made its first public appearance on Friday night, July 19, for a symbolic Lunar Rover Walk from the Von Braun Center to the Downtown Square in Huntsville. Accompanying the Polaris team and Morea was Mayor Battle, Marshall Space Flight Center Director Jody Singer, Space Center CEO Deborah Barnhart, and a host of former NASA engineers and space fans.
Polaris may not have created history with its replica LRV, but its engineers did a marvelous job recreating a key part of man’s first mission to put a man on the moon.
Morea was amazed at the work performed by Polaris engineers. “The Polaris team reminds me of my team,” Morea said before taking a seat in the LRV for its downtown ride. “If I was in charge, I’d want any one of these guys working on my team. They are so dedicated and wouldn’t take no for an answer. They had to find a way to do it and they did it. I’m just overwhelmed and so appreciative.”
How did it all come about?
Building the replica of the Apollo LRV began with a group of five core team members at Polaris Industries – Ogle, Taylor Gammon, Eddy Shipman, Aidan Shaughnessy, and Dustin Clanton. Eventually, 55 people would work on the working model. The bulk of the work was done in Polaris’ Huntsville facility but two other sites were also involved.
The engineers began by studying the original drawings.
“The suspension and the sheet metal they used were very lightweight because their No. 1 goal was to keep the weight down,” Ogle said. “We realized for ours to work on earth, we needed to beef up a lot of things.”
Ogle’s team started throwing components together and analyzing them for strength. Then they did the math.
The suspension on a Polaris vehicle is six times stronger than the lunar rover and designed for a capacity of 3,000 pounds. Conversely, the LRV weighed 470 pounds on earth, but only weighed 77 pounds on the moon. Since a 180-pound person on Earth weighs just 30 pounds on the moon, the LRV suspension only needed to support two 30-pound people.
So the Polaris team adapted their replica to support earth-weight. They also had to adapt when it came to building materials, something Polaris engineers are used to doing.
“Some of our vehicles drive underwater, so we have to factor that in our design and materials, but after researching the space needs, this is nothing like they had to do,” said Ogle. “The moon temperature goes from plus 250 degrees Fahrenheit to minus-250 Fahrenheit. They had to consider that. They had to pick lubricants that could withstand that change. We were just amazed at what they had to consider. And they pulled it off three times.”
We’re celebrating Apollo and what we’ve done, but, I’ll tell you, the best is still yet to come.”
At one point, the Polaris team needed to recreate the LRV fenders, which were originally made of fiberglass. “We don’t use fiberglass anymore and didn’t have anything like it to work with. So NASA’s curator found the original molds for the fenders and we were able to recreate them,” he said.
Ogle said the engineers from the original LRV project were a great help on the Polaris replica. For Morea, part of the enjoyment in helping Ogle was the memories it stirred.
After 50 years, what memory stands out? Morea says it was his hesitant reaction when first approached by Dr. Wernher Von Braun to work on the LRV.
“I tried to turn it down,” Morea said with a smile and twinkle in his eye.” Von Braun told me, ‘if you can handle a $1 billion dollar program for 7 ½ years and you can solve the problem with the J-2 failures in another 2 ½ years, then this should be a piece of cake for you.’ He said, ‘It will only take 17 ½ months and it’s only a $40 million project. And if you’re not done on time, they’re going to fly without you.”
For the record, they didn’t fly without the LRV. How about the piece of cake proclamation?
“No, it wasn’t. It was one of the more challenging jobs I ever had,” Morea said.
NASA’s next challenge
The Apollo 11 celebration and Lunar Rover Walk allowed Morea and his former NASA colleagues the opportunity to reflect on past accomplishments in space travel. They were also eager to discuss what’s next with Marshall Flight Center Director Jody Singer.
Just before the downtown LRV walk, Singer addressed the crowd about NASA’s aggressive plans and schedule for the future.
“We’re working hard to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024,” Singer said. “I tell you we’ve got what it takes to go to Mars, too.”
Marshall Space Flight Center will be in the middle of all aspects of the trip, including the “lander.”
“As our story continues, hang on. We’ve got the momentum going,” Singer said. “We’re celebrating Apollo and what we’ve done, but, I’ll tell you, the best is still yet to come. What we’ll be doing, with the next to go, is developing the vehicles, the technology, the landing systems, what it takes to live in space. I’ll tell you, we’re up to it. We’ll be ready to go, with this community’s help. We will all make it happen.”