Get Outta Town: Check out Grover, a nifty piece of space exploration history

by Nick Gonzales

If you’ve been through Flagstaff, Arizona, at first glance it doesn’t look much like the surface of the moon – especially with the sea of pine trees stretching in every direction. But for a period of time in the ’60s and ’70s, NASA considered it to be the next best thing.

As the first (and so far, the last) crew to land on another celestial object, the Apollo astronauts had to train in environments that would simulate their best guesses about the surface of the moon. Scattered with hills and craters of both the volcanic and impact varieties, the area around Flagstaff fit the bill. The variety of rocks present also allowed the group of mostly test pilots to learn a thing or two about geology before hurtling into the void.

Once on the moon, Niel Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and the crews of Apollo 12 and 14 had a limited area of the moon they could explore – basically however far they could hoof it from the lunar lander in the limited time available. The space program solved this for the final three missions, though, by sending a vehicle to the moon with the astronauts: the Lunar Roving Vehicle. “Moon buggies” if you’re nasty.

The Boeing corporation built four of the buggies for about $9.5 million a pop – more than the cost of two Lamborghini Venenos today, without even adjusting for inflation. The LRVs would prove invaluable for transporting the astronauts, their equipment, and samples on the moon. But because they were built for use in the moon’s lower gravity, they were useless for training on Earth.

In a legendary achievement in the history of knock-offs, United States Geological Survey mechanics in Flagstaff, channeling some Tony Stark energy, built two replicas that could run on this planet from a box of scraps. They cost about $1,900 each.

Dubbed the “Geologic Rovers” or “Grovers,” these vehicles had a separate motor for each wheel for each motor and topped out at a speed of 7 mph. They weren’t exactly useful for cruising down the highway, but they allowed Apollo astronauts to train on rovers throughout the Southwest until the Apollo program ended in 1972.

If you want to see one, head to the Shoemaker Building at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff. This working government laboratory is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and has a Grover sitting right in the lobby, along with some other Apollo program paraphernalia, including the hand prints of Apollo astronauts preserved in cement.

Nick Gonzales

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