Electric pioneers: Marking fifty years since humankind first drove on the moon

(January 11, 2021) This year marks half a century since humankind first drove a car on the moon. The car, which was fully electric, was called the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). Three made it to the lunar surface, the first of which touched down as part of the Apollo 15 mission on July 30, 1971. 

Charles ‘Charlie’ Duke was part of one of the three crews who experienced the LRV. Selected as an astronaut in 1966, he flew with John Young and Ken Mattingly on Apollo 16 as the Lunar Module pilot, tasked with landing their craft on the lunar surface. He became the 10th person to step onto the moon and one of only six people to experience one of the most advanced, innovative electric vehicles ever attempted. And yet, until recently, he hadn’t driven an electric car on earth. He did so for the first time near his Texas home recently, at the wheel of a Porsche Taycan.

“Well, in my view the Rover was the first, real, reliable, rugged, dependable electric car,” said Duke, recalling his experiences from April 1972, when Apollo 16 became the second mission to the moon to use the LRV. “We had plenty of power — each wheel had its own independent suspension and wire tires, which I thought was crazy at first but was actually a genius idea because it meant that you’re going to dig into this dust and it gave you really good traction – it would drive up a 25 degree slope so off we set up a mountain and it felt like I was going to fall out of the back of the thing. All this was great, but not nearly as exciting as heading down the mountain again!”

The LRV was one of many firsts achieved by the Apollo space program of the 1960s and early 1970s. Developed in just 17 months and weighing 4,621 pounds it was powered by two non-rechargeable 36-volt batteries with drive coming from four electric motors each developing 0.25hp, making it four wheel drive. In addition, it used four wheel steering for extra agility and even had a basic but highly effective navigation system to ensure the astronauts could find their way back to the Lunar Excursion Module.

The three LRVs travelled a combined distance of 56 miles. “I don’t think we used even half of the battery during our three-day stay up there,” said Duke.

Charlie Duke got behind the wheel of the Porsche Taycan Turbo S — a four wheel drive, four wheel steer, fully electric car equipped with navigation systems — at a small airport near Austin, Texas. By contrast to the LRV, which was designed to operate in one sixth of earth’s gravity, the Taycan Turbo S is equipped with 396 battery cells and has two motors developing, in tandem, a peak of 750 hp directed through all four wheels via a two speed gearbox. “Down here on earth, I’ve never driven an electric car. I think I have the same mental outlook for a car as I do for an airplane — the cockpit design — I’ve got to sit there and take it all in,” said Duke on first getting behind the wheel. “This is really high tech — it’s all integrated now, an amazing electric car: the technology is an order of magnitude – more than that – over our Rover.”

Duke’s Lunar Roving Vehicle remains on the moon today, exactly where it was parked, waiting to be rediscovered. “With the Rover we could travel six or seven kilometers away from your landing site and it helped to really revolutionize lunar exploration. It was extremely reliable,” said Duke. “I think even today, if we went back to where we landed, and took two batteries, we could power it up and go again. I’ve always said, if you want an $8 million car with a dead battery, I know where you can get one!”

Should the logistics of taking up Charlie Duke’s offer prove challenging, our own pioneer, the Porsche Taycan — costing considerably less and with a battery that’s very much alive — is available here on earth.