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  • Joy Riding on the Moon October 3, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    ***This post is dedicated to Larry who pretty much wrote the whole thing himself***

    Autumn flu continues, but Larry K came to the rescue this morning saving Beachcombing from having to think too hard or even, if truth be told, from dragging himself out of bed. Beach can do no better than quote from Larry’s email:

    In August I met a semi-retired geologist who told me about a major geology meeting he attended in Washington, D.C. in 1989. One of the speakers was Harrison Schmitt, the first and so far only professional geologist to ever walk on the Moon courtesy of the Apollo 17 mission in December of 1972. This geologist relayed to me that Schmitt said on one of the Apollo missions which carried the rover (so this had to be only Apollo 15, 16, or 17), the astronauts decided to test the lunar ‘hot rod’ with some unscheduled (and definitely unauthorized) stunts. They drove the rover up a nearby hill (all three final Apollo missions took place in the lunar highlands), then sped down the hill at top speed just to see how fast it could go. When they reached the bottom the astronauts apparently hit a rock and went flying into the (virtually non-existent) air. They flew 30 feet in altitude and 300 feet down range, thanks to the much-reduced gravity of the world they were exploring. The lower gravity also kept them from crashing when they and the rover finally touched down. For obvious reasons the astronauts in question did not report their actions to Mission Control and apparently (again) only a few selected folks knew about this event – until now.

    Larry noted that he trusts his source:

    ‘The person who told me this seemed honest and if he wanted to pull one over on me, well he got me, end of story. He also told me he wasn’t joking about the story, plus he is a semi-retired geologist. In all seriousness, I do not doubt that he heard this story where and who he said it came from. Apparently it was also told to a whole room of geologists in 1989. I wondered why such a story had not been widely dispersed by now? While I do not claim to know every little detail of space history, I do like to think I know more than just the usual stories and I certainly do love these kind. And the ones I have heard leave little doubt that some of those guys would have tried such a thing.’

    Memories of NASA and a ham sandwich

    There is then the question of which of the three rovers carrying missions this could possibly have been.  Larry has done all the spade work here too.

    Apollo 15 [1971] – The rover was first carried on this mission and it was undoubtedly exciting to be able to get around the lunar surface as much as it allowed. Seeing just how fast they could go would be part of this excitement. They had plenty of good hills/mountains about them, all fresh (undriven upon). Plus these are the guys who took first day covers with them illegally and got in big trouble after that, never allowed to fly in space via NASA again. With such a heinous criminal activity already part of the mission, stunt driving would not be  far behind.

    Apollo 16 [1972] – Duke and Young, the first two Good Ol’ Boys to land on the Moon. Add a vehicle with four wheels, plenty of sloping terrain, and nobody else besides Mattingly in orbit for 240,000 miles around and you get a Dukes of Hazard situation well in hand. I bet they even put a Confederate Battle Flag on the rear of the rover.

    Apollo 17 [1972]- The last manned mission to the Moon in the series. Note that Harrison the story teller was on that flight. They also had a broken wheel bumper which they fixed with a laminated map. I cannot say that I recall how they broke it, but I bet a wheel slamming violently upward after, say, a forceful impact with the regolith after, say, a levitated incident with the rover might do it.

    Beach has corresponded with Larry before and trusts him and trusts Larry’s judgement. But he is suspicious about some of the details. As Larry writes ‘the rover had a video camera aboard and the astronauts carried cameras strapped to their chest as well’. If the astronauts had done as described would they have really got away with it? Perhaps what we are hearing here is an exaggerated tale about a wheelie on the moon? In any case it is a very enjoyable story: Beach is hoping it is as advertised.  Anyone able to fill in any gaps here? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Thanks again Larry, easiest post that B has ever ‘written’! Now back to the vegetable broth and the comic books.


    3 Oct 2011: Invisible sends in this modern piece of publicity – have rumours of joy riding on the moon got out there prior to this post… Thanks Invisible!

    4 Oct 2011: Some very amusing emails on this – the general drift of which is that the astronauts they chose were crazy and capable of anything. However, sticking to the more factual communications… Ricardo writes in: ‘Your post reminded me a description of one of the joy rides of the astronauts aboard the rover so I don’t think it’s a “secret” thing but maybe a nice way of telling the story. I’m looking out for the documentary where I saw it but meanwhile went to wiki and, for Apollo 16, ‘The astronauts also conducted performance tests with the lunar rover, Young at one time getting up to a top speed of 11 miles per hour (18 kilometers per hour), which still stands as the record speed for any wheeled vehicle on the Moon.’ The ride has been described has a cross country test somewhere else so… I also doubt they would manage to hide it from everyone… albeit the 3rd mission of skylab left 3 dummies in place, waiting for the 4th and last mission… who found an “occupied” station on arrival. The trivia on space missions is truly interesting 🙂’ Nancy from over at Universe Today is also skeptical: ‘I’ve not heard this story before, and I have doubts about it. The astronauts were fairly well monitored during their spacewalks, and in constant communication with mission control, so if they did something like this, it would be pretty surprising – not only because they did something not in the original missions plan (and I have heard the astronauts say there was so much to do during their spacewalks on the Moon and not all that much time to do it in – especially Apollo 15 and 16), but also because no one has leaked anything like this before. If you can verify this story, it would likely be a pretty substantial coup!  (and I’d like to hear about it!)’ Also Invisible has another shot at this, and it’s a good one: One more thing about the moon joy-ride… There are, of course, NASA sites showing the surface of the moon. For example, this one: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/LRO/news/apollo-sites.html Surely, if this story was true, there would be tracks where no tracks ought to be? Unless, in its usual conspiratorial way, the Government is supressing the Truth…. (I will let wiser, more scientific eyes take a look because I have no idea what I am looking at!)’ Thanks to Nancy, Ricardo and Invisible!

    5 Oct 2011: Moonman wrote a couple of emails (spliced together here) in just before I put the last lot of posts up: ‘Actually, there is a good way to PROVE this story’s truth.  We can now SEE the tracks of the rover.  I think 3D models have also been generated with stereo imagery of these Apollo sites, I will look it up.  Since they likely did not “cover their tracks” Indian style, the whole story should be obviously read in the images. The idea of the video capturing the event is unlikely since I think they had to reposition the video camera antenna to get a link to Earth during broadcasting and this occurred during stops.  Also, the camera they were carrying were still camera and unlikely to be used in transit. Also, find the astronauts with the dustiest uniforms after the rover driving and before lunar liftoff.  They took a lot of pictures throughout each mission and Sherlock Holmes (or even Dr. Watson) would find it elementary to observe since lunar dust sticks like the dickens to everything… especially astronauts. In fact there is a story of one astronaut falling but who had trouble getting up… I will see if I can find the video… I also remember the picture of their landing site and it showed one of the landing legs on the edge of a deep small crater, suitable of tipping it over!  This was a good example of how many landing  legs you need and landing precision.  I will see if I can find that image link somewhere too. The LRO images that were most recently taken of the Apollo 17 site which really show the rover tracks well are not publicly available in their entirety for a few months. This is the best they are offering: tracks 1 and tracks 2. Maybe some of the prior LRO images have good enough Sun angles to resolve the rover tracks.  Will have to check (as I am sure others already are). Also, they did have a special camera to film movie sequences on the rover, but those were on briefly (Apollo 15 rover movie film covered 5 minutes of travel in the rover).  So, don’t count on the stunt being covered.  Anyway, the Apollo 15 rover had a “speed test” which was covered in video/film and was legit. Of course, audio coverage was continuous so I wonder how such an event could have been unnoticed by mission control. I reread your article and now realize they AND the rover fly through the “air”.  I had been thinking the astronauts flew after the rover hit the rock.  Thus my proposed dust assessment on the suits would likely not be useful. I found the astronaut falling video clip… Here it seems like he just fell on his side and likely to his knees first…  They had trouble picking up the dropped camera because they could not bend in the spacesuit. They need a shovel like tool to pick it up. It demonstrates the hazard of falling on the lunar surface in a suit. From Apollo 15 and the film.  JBC (through Larry) ‘Not saying it didn’t happen. But Apollo EVA times and progress were tightly controlled and monitored in real time with continuous downlink. On Apollo 16 John Young did an authorized off-road test of the LRV which was filmed by Charlie Duke. Al Shepard’s golf swings were on live TV. Closest thing I recall hearing about an off-the-record activity during a surface EVA was when Conrad and Bean were vigorously digging through their sample bag on Apollo 12 looking for the camera timer while they claimed to be resting. (Hence their extremely dirty suits.) Plus who measured their height and distance? Maybe new LRO images can find LRV tracks with a 100-meter gap?  That would confirm and identify the time, place and driver. This sounds like one of those stories so good that if it isn’t true, it should be.’ Thanks Moonman and JBC (and Larry)

    6 Oct 2011: Moonman has been rethinking some of his earlier conclusions. He wonders whether audio really was continuous. And then the question of the tracks. ‘If the astronauts drove up the hill and then drove “precisely” down the same track at breakneck speed then perhaps the jump could be missed. … Of course, they hit a rock so that likely was not on the path uphill. You should see where they landed though if they went splat.’ Then Ricardo ‘Both the off-road test and astronaut falling are on this you tube link. I’m still trying to find the documentary I saw. I think (but memory is tricky, as you know) it has a better description of this joy ride and I think it’s easy that this off road has transformed itself in that wild story. Of course we can all do as those lines in the end of John Ford ‘Who shot Liberty Valence’… ‘when legend becomes fact, print the fact, not the legend’ Thanks yet again Moonman and Ricardo!

    10 Oct 2011: Ricardo writes ‘Hope this will be of help to the fire. Apollo 15 journal with audio and video and transcripts of the audio and comments from the astronauts obtained in interviews.  Apollo 16 and Apollo 17. There was no Apollo 18 but someone did a film about it, considered by some the Blairwitch of space...’  Then finally Larry posted the Lunar Rover article on David S. F. Portree’s Facebook page version of his Beyond Apollo space history blog.  This is David’s response  ‘There are all kinds of reasons to believe that this never happened, or that it is a gross exaggeration. Perhaps Schmitt told a story and the numbers became inflated over time, or maybe it was told as a “could have happened” story that was m…isinterpreted as a “did happen.” I believe that this story hasn’t been told widely because most people would realize that it’s not possible. It would not be surprising to hear that the LRV left the ground and flew 20 feet or 30 feet. In fact, that certainly did happen on multiple occasions. But 300? At an altitude of 20 feet? Schmitt would not have made it back to Earth to tell the tale. Regarding fenders: the LRVs had to fold up to fit onto the LM. The fenders included extensions that unfolded during deployment. They appear to have been poorly designed. Apollo 16 lost one before its last EVA. Apollo 17 lost one ahead of its first EVA. Because the 16 astronauts had been showered with dust, they advised that a repair effort be made for 17, hence the map fender. The Apollo 16 “grand prix” was not a joyride, it was part of the planned roster of surface activities. Young drove alone while Duke captured it on film. The purpose was to study LRV dynamics. Young was cautious during the drive, even hesitating to “turn sharp” when Duke asked him to The LRV could not return TV unless parked. The dish antenna was for TV. It had to be pointed at Earth manually by the astronauts.’ To which Larry replies:  ‘David, you present to me a detailed series of cold, sober facts. What I was really hoping for was the image of the Lunar Rover flying against the blackness, the powdery regolith spraying from its wheels in all directions, while the two astronauts gave a hearty YEEEHAAA! to the sound of rapidly-played banjo music and a folksy narrator proclaiming “Well, it looks like those Apollo boys are in a heap of trouble with Boss NASA this time!” Then the LR hits the regolith with a bounce but nary a dent and turns 180 degrees to a spectacular halt, with a final spray of lunar surface arcing across the landscape.’ Thanks Ricardo, Larry and David. It was good while it lasted…