John Olmsted and the Lunar Roving Vehicle

SPECIAL POST: a Q&A with an Apollo engineer who designed the lunar rover and trained the astronauts who drove it on the moon! (read to the very end!)
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Back when I was a finance undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin, I had the privilege of joining what I consider the finest student investing organization in the nation, the University Securities Investment Team (USIT). Not only did they teach me everything I know about finance, I also happened to meet some awesome people along the way! Right before I graduated, one of my USIT friends messaged me out of the blue, basically saying, "oh yeah Hans I know you like space, did I ever mention my grandpa BUILT THE FREAKING LUNAR ROVER?" See my response below!!

Excerpts from our conversation. Pardon my French, but I wanted you all to see my unfiltered, authentic reaction!!

Built by Boeing and General Motors for the last 3 moon landings, the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) was designed to be incredibly light and compact to allow for storage on the exterior of the Lunar Module, with a max speed of about 15km/hour and an average distance traveled of about 30km. Personally, my favorite aspect of the lunar rovers is the brilliant design of their wheels; since at the time no one knew what it'd be like to drive through fine moon dust at 1/6th Earth gravity, the engineers figured out that a wheel made of an interwoven steel wire mesh lined with aluminum treads would be the least likely to get trapped in the powdery dunes. The lunar rover needed to perform with the utmost reliability, contending with everything from the stresses of liftoff to the radiation environment of the moon. Just think of how inconvenient it would be for your car to conk out on the side of the highway, then imagine that happening miles away from your spacecraft on the desolate surface of the moon! It was a failure NASA simply could not afford

Left: John Olmsted testing out the moon buggy with Apollo 16 LMP Charlie Duke as his passenger
Top right: "To John Olmsted with best personal regards and many thanks for your contributions to the success of Apollo 15"
Bottom right: "To John, with sincere thanks for helping make this salute possible" - John Young & Charlie Duke, Apollo 16

As it turns out, my friend's grandfather John Olmsted did much more than just design the lunar rover; he was senior enough to be instrumental in many aspects of mission training, working directly with the astronaut crews to prepare them for their missions! And when I asked him to allow me to tell his story on Astronomical Returns, he was even gracious enough to share with me photos and memorabilia from contributions to the Apollo Program, signed by numerous Apollo astronauts!

"This rover TV mounting plug was about the Falcon at Hadley Base, Moon. July 30 - Aug. 2, Apollo Year 3.
Presented by the crew of Apollo 15 to JOHN OLMSTED"

A half century removed from the immortal moon landings, in an age teeming with progress and technological innovation, sometimes it feels as though these awe-inspiring panoramas of man and machine exploring the dusty lunar surface have lost their indelible impact on our collective consciousness. We've grown so accustomed to seeing these photos in old textbooks, as default laptop screensavers, or even parodied as Internet memes, that we no longer soak in the astonishing fact that our grandparents literally sent electric automobiles to the moon, decades before an eccentric South African entrepreneur ever conceived of the Tesla Roadster. And we forget that we remain incapable of matching prior generations' achievements in space, much less rekindling the world's imagination with another giant leap for mankind

"To John - with many thanks for the procedures and training on the rover. What a machine! With warm personal regards from Apollo 16"

I've waited quite a while to share this post on Astronomical Returns because I wanted it to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13, which I consider the epitome of human perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Therefore, I hope you enjoy reading his responses below to the questions I asked him about his time with NASA, because I find it worthwhile to preserve the stories of the 400,000 Americans who contributed to the success of the Apollo Program. And I hope it provides you with just a little inspiration for what this new generation can achieve for the future

Two letters from the grateful crew of Apollo 13

  1. Can you describe your background and education?
    I was born in Pittsburgh, PA on August 3rd, 1933, and I earned a bachelors degree in applied and theoretical math
     
  2. What jobs did you have before you worked on the Apollo Program? What experiences from those jobs made you suitable to be an engineer on the lunar rover? When did you first start working on the LRV? 
    Before the Apollo Program, I was an aircraft mechanic & electrician working on the Centaur project, as well as an electrical engineer at the Atlas silo missile system at Plattsburgh, NY. I think real-world experience versus theory was why I was assigned to work on the LRV. This assignment occurred right around the time Apollo 15 was selected to be the first mission to employ an LRV (around 1969/1970)
     
  3. Can you describe what your title and exact role was on the LRV? Did you work with Boeing / GM / some other contractor, or directly with NASA?
    Although I was a senior systems engineer with General Electric, I lived in Dickinson, TX and held a title with NASA as LRV instructor pilot. I wrote and implemented the training syllabus for the LRV and did all the training with the flight crews at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston, TX
     
  4. What were the biggest challenges you and your team had to overcome to make the LRV succeed? 
    I think my biggest challenge was the bureaucracy when the Apollo 15 crew wanted seatbelts installed (that is, Commander David Scott, as Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin did not feel they were necessary). For us as the contractor (General Electric), to do that kind of work would have cost a lot more time and money than it would've been worth
     
  5. Can you tell me any funny, memorable, or otherwise awesome stories from working on the lunar rover with the astronauts?
    After Apollo 15 the flight crew threw a thank you party, as this was a tradition to thank all the members of the support crew for their work. I had an Apollo 16 training exercise to go to at the Cape, and Jim Irwin also needed a ride to the Cape for a function he was attending. When we got in the car to go, Jim didn't use his seatbelt, so the car buzzed to remind him to put it on. Jim asked what that was about and I told him, but he adamantly refused to put his seatbelt on, so what he did was he raised his butt off the seat and we proceeded to go the whole 20 miles up to the Cape in that ridiculous fashion!
     
  6. You contributed to the Apollo 13 mission as well I believe? Could you elaborate more on that, since that mission was prior to the LRVs being deployed on the lunar surface. 
    Rodger Koppa and I were actually the lunar surface trainers on Apollo 13. Jim Lovell and Fred Haise were absolutely outstanding to work with, and it was a shame they couldn't land as it would've been a very important milestone in lunar surface exploration
     
  7. What was your reaction when you heard Apollos 18-20 had been canceled, since LRVs would've certainly been deployed on those missions?
    Of course I was heartbroken when the Apollo Program was canceled after Apollo 17, we missed an opportunity to advanced manned space exploration
      
  8. Could you briefly describe what you did after the Apollo Program wound down?
    I worked for Lockheed for a year writing proposals for their participation in the Space Shuttle Program. Following that my wife and I went into business for ourselves, a decision that we have never regretted
     
  9. Finally, have you always been interested in space, and what importance do you think manned spaceflight has on society today? What are you most excited about for the future of space exploration?
    I have always been interested in spaceflight and space exploration. If you look at your phone, what do you see? I see a computer that can make phone calls, a computer that is a direct result of Apollo and is more powerful than any mainframe of that era. I am most excited about what Elon Musk is doing to further space exploration. I think man is an exploring animal, and if we consider ourselves and enduring species then sooner or later we will have to leave this planet. The sun will not go supernova, but eventually it will expand in size and destroy the Earth. So are we a surviving species, or are we the dinosaurs?

    P.S. I drive a computer that Elon dreamed up, some call it a Tesla!
     
Mr. Olmsted, thank you again for your contribution to the Apollo Program, and for allowing me to share your amazing story on Astronomical Returns! With any luck, one day we'll put Teslas and Cybertrucks on the moon, right next your beautiful lunar rovers! 








3 comments

  1. Thanks for this post, found it looking for old friends from the Apollo days. John Olmsted and I worked at General Electric in a small group supporting NASA's Apollo Lunar Surface Training division.
    I would appreciate you passing along my email address to John: tomonty37@gmail.com

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    Replies
    1. Hello Mr. Montgomery, that's amazing, I'm so glad you stumbled across my post!! I will definitely pass your email along - I hope you get a chance to reconnect with Mr. Olmsted!! :)

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  2. I think it was my daughter who texted you.

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