GM Goes to the Moon


LRV with Kennedy Space Center technicians before incorporation into the Lunar Module

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General Motors has long been recognized throughout the world for its automobiles, but not many people identify GM with space travel.

How do you guide a vehicle at a speed of 3,400 miles an hour and land it on a target on a moving globe that is 240,000 miles away?

And once you land on your target, how do you get around if the temperature fluctuates from -250 degrees Fahrenheit to +250 degrees Fahrenheit everyday and gravitational pull is one-sixth that of the earth?

If you were the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and you wanted to land a man on the moon and have him explore its surface, you would turn to General Motors.

Apollo 11 launch, 1969

Yes, General Motors developed and delivered the inertial guidance and navigation systems for the entire Apollo moon program (including Apollo 11, the first manned landing, in 1969) and was also responsible for all mobility systems and components of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) that the Apollo 15 astronauts first drove on the moon in 1971.

A team of GM’s AC Electronics Division’s scientists and engineers had been developing inertial guidance systems for more than two decades when NASA tapped their expertise for the Apollo program. Inertial guidance was the first form of navigation to rely on no signals, no familiar landmarks, no stars or planets.

Because the Apollo inertial guidance system had to be totally self-reliant once in space and then behind the moon, when the space craft was out of touch with NASA’s Mission Control Center, the GM AC Electronics team had to build it to the highest standards of precision, accuracy, and reliability. Its delicate instruments were assembled in dust-free, temperature and humidity-controlled environments and its components were machined to specifications measured in millionths of an inch.

In the case of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, GM’s Delco Electronics Division had been working on the unique design, structural, and propulsion challenges of a vehicle that could be driven on the moon for a decade before getting the official Apollo contract. A team of Delco Electronics engineers based in Santa Barbara, Callifornia, experimented with prototype vehicles that walked, tumbled, rolled, crawled, and even screwed through the soil before settling on a skeletal frame with woven wire mesh-bodied wheels.

The LRV was a text book example of pushing the envelope of creativity to meet unprecedented customer requirements. It carried a payload of 1080 pounds, including driver and passenger, which was more than twice its own weight. It also folded down to a size that took up only half the cargo space of a typical family station wagon; had a turning radius twice as sharp as that of a car; and operated at temperatures nearly twice as hot as the Sahara and twice as cold as the Arctic.

Today, that heritage of pushing the creativity envelope to put a man on the moon lives on in General Motors’ commitment to address the environmental and energy issues here on earth. From Flex Fuel vehicles that can run on either E85 ethanol or gasoline to hybrids, fuel cells, and the revolutionary Chevrolet Volt advanced technology concept car, the first vehicle ever that can be configured to run on either electricity, E85, or biodiesel fuel -- GM is working to redefine the automobile itself as the company enters its second century.

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