GUY RAZ, host:
Some parts are easier to come by than others. In this case, we're talking about parts for the three original lunar rovers. The rovers are still on the moon, and so are their tires, and that posed a problem for NASA scientists trying to recreate those tires for a new lunar rover. No one at NASA could find instructions for building them. From member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio, Jeff St. Clair picks up our story.
JEFF ST. CLAIR: If sound could travel on the moon, this is what Apollo astronauts might have heard as their lunar rover bounced across the dusty craters.
(Soundbite of tires crackling)
ST. CLAIR: It's the crackling of the original moon tire. Here on Earth, a one-sixth scale moon buggy is crawling across a lunar terrain simulator, NASA-speak for a big sandbox at the NASA Glenn Research Facility in Cleveland. Vivake Asnani heads the research team at NASA Glenn, and he's testing the original moon tires to gain baseline data for the current lunar program.
Dr. VIVAKE ASNANI (Head, Research Team, NASA Glenn Research Facility): We wanted to understand its basic utility for what vehicles can we use these tires directly. And if not, how can we apply the technology and modify it versus going back and reinventing the wheel.
ST. CLAIR: But that's exactly what Asnani and his team would have had to do if original Apollo scientists followed orders to pitch all the spare moon tires. Eighty-year-old Ferenc Pavlics emigrated from Hungary in 1956 and now lives in Santa Barbara, California. Pavlics invented the lunar rover and its unique tires while working for GM's defense research labs in the late 1960s.
Mr. FERENC PAVLICS (Inventor, Lunar Rover): When we asked NASA what to do with the residual equipment which left over from testing and manufacturing, they told us, destroy it.
ST. CLAIR: Still, NASA's Vivake Asnani had a hunch that Pavlics would be the person best able to help recreate the original moon tire. He was right.
Mr. PAVLICS: I have a kind of a walk-in closet and stored it there over the years.
ST. CLAIR: It turns out Ferenc Pavlics stored a moon tire in his house for nearly 40 years. Pavlics brought his tire to Akron where he tutored engineers at Goodyear on the finer points of its manufacture.
Mr. PAVLICS: It is not a simple thing to build here because there are many tricks to it and it's not that mass-produced type of a thing. It is more of an art needed to build it.
ST. CLAIR: Since rubber tires would disintegrate in the harsh environment of the moon, Pavlics' innovation was to use a very ordinary, but durable material instead.
(Soundbite of piano playing)
ST. CLAIR: The 14-gauge wire found in almost any piano. NASA's Vivake Asnani shows how the open woven mesh design made moon travel practical.
Dr. ASNANI: Well, it's one of the most amazing things about the structure. If you push on it, it completely envelops whatever you're placing on top of the tire. So, right now, my fist is being pushed into the tire and it's sinking in. At the same time, it can carry the full load of the vehicle.
ST. CLAIR: The wire mesh also allows fine lunar dust to sift into the wheel providing traction.
Dr. ASNANI: There isn't too much complexity to the final tire design. It's quite elegant.
ST. CLAIR: Asnani admits that the spare closet space of an elderly Apollo scientist isn't the best way to archive specialized designs.
Dr. ASNANI: Obviously, we shouldn't be relying on people's memories, but in this case, that's the way it was.
ST. CLAIR: Vivake Asnani's story made it to NASA headquarters where he was invited to take part in a system-wide review of NASA's record keeping procedures. As Asnani and his team prepare to unveil the next generation of moon tires, he's trying to assure that future scientists won't have to dig around in his closet to find a replacement part. For NPR News, I'm Jeff St. Clair.
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