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Monday, November 6, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Moon Memories -- Restoring An Old Lunar Rover Brings Back The Best Of Times For Retired Boeing Engineers

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The press called it Chitty Chitty Boeing Boeing.

Boeing, its maker, was too scientifically correct for that and called it the Lunar Roving Vehicle. But it was the same vintage and just as magical in the minds of the engineers who built it as the flying jalopy Dick Van Dyke drove in the 1968 movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

Now some of those Boeing engineers who built lunar rovers nearly 30 years ago to move astronauts across the moon have dug one of their mock-ups out of mothballs and rebuilt it for display at the Museum of Flight.

These tough old engineers get downright sentimental when they talk about this almost-forgotten piece of pioneer space junk.

"This was one of the best programs we ever worked on," said Maine Tonkin, who helped design the navigation system for the rover and one of 11 engineers who came out of retirement to help rebuild the mockup of the buggy that piggybacked to the moon on the Apollo ships in the early '70s.

"This display perpetuates what we did," said Doug Tilden, a structural analysis engineer on the program. "That was the best of my time at Boeing. I was so proud of what we did then."

They worked iron-man hours to get the rover aboard Apollo - five shifts at a time, followed by eight hours' sleep, then three more shifts, back to back. They built eight test cars - including the one on display - and four working models. Three of the real lunar rovers traveled the distance with Apollos 15, 16 and 17 and were left behind on the moon; the fourth stayed home and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

The lunar rovers were used to carry astronaut explorers on the moon and haul rocks and soil samples. They were designed to drive six miles from the lander - about the maximum distance the astronauts could walk back in case of rover trouble.

The mockup at the Museum of Flight is the first one built; Boeing won the NASA contract for the design in 1969 and delivered in 1971.

Its purpose was to figure out things like how much foot-room the astronauts would need, whether they could climb aboard easily in their bulky spacesuits and whether they could reach the pedals and hand controls.

The finished rover - built by many of the same engineers who built the mockup - was a two-seater with a one-horsepower motor and a maximum speed of 8.7 miles an hour.

The volunteer restoration team - 11 retirees and eight Boeing employees - started work in January 1994, led by Bob Jenkins, the museum chairman of the Boeing Management Association Kent Chapter. Another 32 Boeing people provided technical or manufacturing assistance along the way. It took 18 months to restore the mockup and build a museum display yard that looks like the moon.

The rover model had been stored in a Boeing warehouse all these years; the technical drawings had to be retrieved from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where they'd been sent for storage.

The drawings could still be used, but mothballing had not been kind to the rover. When the engineers saw it for the first time in all those years, they said it looked like something Fred Flintstone might drive. The seats looked like sagging lawn chairs atop a broken-down bed frame and the crudely welded wire-mesh wheels had been scrunched into a lumpy decahedron.

Jenkins went to the Smithsonian and crawled all over the rover on display there, making notes on what Seattle's finished product should look like.

The team met once a week to plan the project and divvy up assignments. Much of the work was done in a Boeing warehouse scheduled for demolition. The rest was done in home workshops by the engineers. The men had only $5,000 to work with, although they also had about $45,000 in in-kind contributions.

The engineers had problems with the wheels during manufacture and restoration. Air-filled tires couldn't have withstood the high temperatures or the weightlessness of the moon, so they designed tires made of woven wire. In the museum, the tires had to be strong enough not to collapse under the rover's earthly weight and light enough to look like the mesh that went to the moon.

For the restoration, the engineers settled on steel piano wire, painstakingly woven into hollow cylinders and formed into tires.

"This was a nightmare," said an unsigned report written after the project was over. "Every time we got one side right, it would pooch out somewhere else."

Though it isn't functional, the museum piece is as close to the real moon rover as the engineers could make it. The engineers were going for form, not function.

Tonkin carved a joystick out of wood. They used fiberglass where they could, gold Christmas wrap instead of metalized mylar for the heat shield, garage-door springs and plastic plumbing pipe. And where they couldn't weld it together, they used beeswax and double-sticky tape.

They say it looks far more real now than it did as a mockup.

"The mockup was never intended to be driven," said Jenkins. "The first control was just a crude broomstick handle. But we had all the drawings, and we re-manufactured new parts to spec to make it look like the real thing."

Even though the rover project is finished and the mockup is on display in the museum's space corner, the retirees still meet occasionally to talk about it.

"It has a lot of meaning for me," said Steve Eastman, 85, who began work at Boeing in 1928 and retired 20 years ago. Eastman was a supervisor in the fabrications shop and made many of the rovers' parts. He also helped restore other Boeing planes for the museum.

"I like to see these guys I used to work with, and it gives you a good feeling to do something for the museum."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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