“That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”
Over 50 years ago, the late Neil Armstrong said those famous words when he, along with Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11, became the first astronauts to ever land on the moon. While they did make history, they also found out that traveling by foot on the moon was quite difficult due to low gravity.
That problem was solved during the Apollo 15 to 17 missions when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), along with Boeing developed the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LVR). Powered by four electric motors, it allowed astronauts to better explore the moon while also carrying heavy cargo.
Now, NASA is looking to go back to the moon once more with the 'Artemis' program wherein the goal is to land the next man and first woman on the moon by 2024, as well as "go where man has not gone before" - the lunar South Pole. To do this, NASA recently issued two separate Requests for Information (RFI) wherein they are seeking help from other industries (including automakers) in order to strengthen their own designs for a 'human-rated' lunar terrain vehicle (LTV). This meant that the LTVs can be operated by humans, and have the latest in communication and mobility.
“As we return to the Moon with Artemis, we’re seeking new and innovative approaches that allow us to operate robotically anywhere on the lunar surface and explore more of our nearest neighbor than ever before. We are turning to industry to offer us exciting approaches to leverage existing systems here on Earth—including law enforcement, military, or recreational vehicles—that could be modified for use in space to enhance our mobility architecture,” said Steven Clarke, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration, Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.
The space agency wants to increase their mobility on the moon since astronauts wearing spacesuits can only travel for about less than a kilometer. But just like the LVR used during the Apollo missions, the use of an LTV will allow astronauts to travel for 17 – 25 kilometers while on the moon. This will allow them to perform experiments, explore unchartered territory, as well as gather specimens while on the lunar surface. And, just like the rovers from before, these vehicles must be electrically-powered and unpressurized (open cabin).
With NASA serious about getting back on the moon in a few years' time, perhaps they can get help from Toyota. Last July 2019, the automaker revealed that they will be developing and building a pressurized and manned lunar rover. Working with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the manufacturing of the components will begin this year, while testing will commence at around 2021. A full-scale prototype is planned to be released sometime in 2022 although the fully-working production model is expected to be ready for a future moon mission by 2029.
Maybe Toyota, NASA, and JAXA can all work together in order to make the lunar rover possible at a much earlier date. However, NASA wants an unpressurized rover while Toyota and JAXA signed on for a pressurized vehicle. Perhaps all three parties can agree to a compromise in order for the project to go forward.
Whatever the case may be, we're hoping that NASA's Artemis program will see a new lunar rover head straight to the moon come 2024.