These Metal Spiders Taught Astronauts to Land the Lunar Module on the Moon

October 30, 1964: What’s the best way to practice lunar landings when you’ve never been to the moon? With the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, of course! Although decidedly inelegant in appearance, astronauts relied on these engineering marvels for their practice.

A Lunar Landing Research Vehicle approaches maximum altitude at Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Image credit: NASA

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While preparing for the Apollo moon landings, astronauts needed to practice the final vertical descent on Earth. While NASA considered an electronic simulator or a tethered device, they ultimately built a free-flying vehicle instead.

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January 11, 1967: The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle in flight. Image credit: NASA

The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) required engineering magic to appropriately simulate 1/6th of the Earth’s gravity and transparent aerodynamic forces here at home. They did this with a single jet engine on a pair of gimbals to always point vertically. After boosting the simulator to its test-height, the engine would throttle back so that it cancelling out exactly 5/6th of the vehicle’s weight. Hydrogen peroxide rockets acted as the lander’s thrusters, run through computers that exactly countered any atmospheric impacts like wind while responding to the pilot’s commands so the craft maneuvered as it would on the moon. Even the vehicle’s restricted cockpit view helped astronauts train under similar constraints as the actual lunar modules.

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October 30, 1964: Joe Walker pilots the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) number 1 on its first flight. Image credit: NASA

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NASA research Joe Walker made the first test flight in Lunar Landing Research Vehicle number 1 on October 30, 1964 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The three test flights finished under a minute, with the highest lifted to an altitude of only 3 meters (10 feet).

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The odd silhouette of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle earned it the nickname, “The Flying Bedstead” in popular media. Image credit: NASA

The two Lunar Landing Research Vehicles were eventually succeeded by a trio of Lunar Landing Vehicles (LLTVs) . Every Apollo astronaut who flew a lunar module first practiced the eight-minute descent with the vehicles.

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Multiple exposure of the lunar lander touching down in 1967. Image credit: NASA

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One of the original simulators and two of the upgraded simulators ultimately crashed, destroying them while the pilot ejected to safety. Neil Armstrong was the first to crash, ejecting from LLRV #1 when fuel for the attitude control thrusters ran out during a practice flight on a windy day. Armstrong famously returned to work that afternoon. The first LLTV crashed within months of delivery in 1968 when test pilot Joe Algranti pushed the vehicles speed envelope too hard. Algranti ejected just 3/5ths of a second before it crashed into the ground. LLTV #3 crashed years later in 1971 when test pilot Stuart “Stu” Present was testing a major modification to the computer system.

A Lunar Landing Vehicle at Langley Research Vehicle in California. Image credit: NASA

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October 30, 1964: Lunar Landing Research Vehicle engine test firing on ramp. Image credit: NASA

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[NASA]

Top image: April 26, 1965: A Bell 47 Helicopter provides chase support for Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) flight #1-16-61F. Credit: NASA


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

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