Between 1969 and 1972, six Apollo missions explored the Moon’s surface. Sampling, investigation, and experimentation led to new insights about the Moon. But what is an astronaut to do when there is limited time and supplies to explore the lunar surface? The answer: a lunar roving vehicle (LRV). This dune buggy-like vehicle gave Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 astronauts the ability to travel far distances and haul equipment and samples with ease, a feat not shared with previous Apollo missions. The LRV was collapsible, and once unloaded from the lunar module, it expanded into its driving configuration which was slightly larger than a modern golf cart. LRVs could drive for up to 78 hours, though the astronauts were careful to keep within walking distance (approximately 6 miles) of the lunar module just in case of mechanical failure. Powered by two 36-volt batteries, the roughly 460 pound electric vehicles were equipped with two cameras, a tool rack filled with equipment, and ample space for lunar samples. Composed of innovative and light-weight materials such as fiberglass, aluminum, Kapton, and wheels woven out of wire, the LRV was an engineering marvel.
Boeing, the prime contractor, built several iterations of the LRV: vehicles flown on Apollo, several models, and the qualification test unit (pictured below). The qualification test unit was used for testing to ensure that the rovers for the Apollo missions functioned properly while on the Moon. Due to the rigorous testing, this unit was deemed not safe for use in space. The National Air and Space Museum acquired this rover in 1976, and it was displayed in the Apollo to the Moon gallery in the Museum’s National Mall building for decades.
As part of the Museum’s ongoing renovation, the LRV qualification test unit was removed from display and transferred to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. It will be placed in a new gallery, Destination Moon, which will debut when the National Mall building reopens in the fall of 2022.
The first step in any conservation treatment is a thorough examination. A written report, complete with extensive photography is necessary to ensure that the condition is fully documented and that areas of deterioration are identified. Consultation with the curator helped guide the treatment and identify original and non-original materials. Some of the condition issues identified included significant surface soiling, discoloration of certain materials, staining, minor corrosion of metal elements, failing adhesives, and tears in delicate materials.
After curatorial approval, the conservation treatment commenced. An in-depth cleaning was followed by numerous treatment steps such as Velcro stabilization, glass consolidation, and stain reduction among others. Two areas were of special interest during the treatment: the damaged Kapton and the ripped high gain antenna.
Kapton is a polyimide film that is stable in the harsh environment of space and can withstand temperatures ranging from -452 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit. This gold-colored material covers the lunar communications relay unit on the front of the LRV and some of the wiring. While this lightweight, reflective material serves its purpose of dissipating radiation in space, it was not meant to hold up for decades on Earth. Tears in the Kapton on the lunar communications relay unit and the failing adhesive layer of the Kapton tape surrounding the wire bundle were the main areas of concern. To prevent further damage and potential loss to the Kapton and Kapton tape, a stabilizing treatment was required. The acrylic, thermoplastic resin Paraloid B-72 was applied by brush to the underside of the lifted areas to stabilize the thin material. Once applied, the Kapton was held in place until the adhesive dried to ensure proper alignment. The result of such a treatment was a stable surface no longer in danger of loss or detachment.
Like the Kapton, the high gain antenna needed stabilization. It is composed of a collapsible metal frame with a delicate, thin mesh. The high gain antennas for flown LRVs were composed of a gold mesh, however, the one on the qualification test unit is of a different, unidentified material. Unfortunately, tears, small losses, and one disfiguring old mend compromised the structural integrity of the mesh. To reinstate planarity and stability, the old mend was removed, and plans were devised for a more discreet yet archival mending technique. Adhesive and mechanical mending methods were considered to repair the damages, but patching with adhesive methods had the potential to attract dust and would have been highly visible. Therefore, stitching was the preferred approach. Polyester thread was selected, and the tears repaired. Small pieces of nylon net backing secured with stitching provided support to areas of loss. This step of the treatment tested my eyesight as the mesh and thread were so thin. A sheet of Tyvek draped behind the mesh provided the color contrast needed to help me see what I was doing.
After treatment condition of the high gain antenna- note the repaired mesh with the polyester thread stitching. (Smithsonian Institution)
This project was an exciting experience from start to finish. It resulted in a clean and stable lunar rover that looks ready for a trip to gather Moon rocks. Visit our Museum in Washington, DC, when the new galleries open to see this amazing vehicle!