Across the Airless Wilds
The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings
"THRILLING. ... Up-end[s] the Apollo narrative entirely." —The Times (London)
A "brilliantly observed" (Newsweek) and "endlessly fascinating" (WSJ) rediscovery of the final Apollo moon landings, revealing why these extraordinary yet overshadowed missions—distinguished by the use of the revolutionary lunar roving vehicle—deserve to be celebrated as the pinnacle of human adventure and exploration.
One of The Wall Street Journal's 10 Best Books of the Month
8:36 P.M. EST, December 12, 1972: Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt braked to a stop alongside Nansen Crater, keenly aware that they were far, far from home. They had flown nearly a quarter-million miles to the man in the moon’s left eye, landed at its edge, and then driven five miles in to this desolate, boulder-strewn landscape. As they gathered samples, they strode at the outermost edge of mankind’s travels. This place, this moment, marked the extreme of exploration for a species born to wander.
A few feet away sat the machine that made the achievement possible: an electric go-cart that folded like a business letter, weighed less than eighty pounds in the moon’s reduced gravity, and muscled its way up mountains, around craters, and over undulating plains on America’s last three ventures to the lunar surface.
In the decades since, the exploits of the astronauts on those final expeditions have dimmed in the shadow cast by the first moon landing. But Apollo 11 was but a prelude to what came later: while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trod a sliver of flat lunar desert smaller than a football field, Apollos 15, 16, and 17 each commanded a mountainous area the size of Manhattan. All told, their crews traveled fifty-six miles, and brought deep science and a far more swashbuckling style of exploration to the moon. And they triumphed for one very American reason: they drove.
In this fast-moving history of the rover and the adventures it ignited, Earl Swift puts the reader alongside the men who dreamed of driving on the moon and designed and built the vehicle, troubleshot its flaws, and drove it on the moon’s surface. Finally shining a deserved spotlight on these overlooked characters and the missions they created, Across the Airless Wilds is a celebration of human genius, perseverance, and daring.
Journalist Swift (Chesapeake Requiem) chronicles the work of the engineers, geologists, project managers, and astronauts who took lunar rovers to the moon in this detailed history. Rovers were a key development in space exploration, Swift writes, and they "redefined lunar exploration, space science, and NASA's expectations of what could be achieved." Swift describes the far-reaching vision of ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun, "the conceptual father of lunar mobility," who foresaw the use of lunar vehicles in 1952, well before the start of the Space Race. He also tells of how the United States Geological Survey built testing grounds for the vehicles by using dynamite to create a cratered landscape similar to that of the moon, and surveys the impact rovers had on the final three Apollo missions: astronauts were able to conduct "real science, far from the safety of their lunar module" on "exploration measured in miles, not minutes." Though things starts slowly and the early sections are full of dry technicalities, the narrative picks up steam as the rovers are developed and sent into space (the depictions of lunar travels are a particular highlight). Space buffs will definitely want to check this one out.