Who wouldn’t love the feeling of fishtailing through remote dunes in a brand new, state-of-the-art vehicle designed for off-road adventure? It took years of engineering and millions of dollars to provide the means, but when Dave Scott and Jim Irwin strapped themselves in for a test drive in the summer of ’71 they set off on the adventure of a liftime. After bouncing around at the foot of a 15,000 foot mountain for 42 minutes, Scott told their support crew, “By golly, Joe, this rover is remarkable.” (241)
Of course, Joe Allen was not even on the same planetary body as Scott at the time. Allen was in Houston supervising this debut drive of the lunar rover that had been lashed aboard Apollo 15’s lunar module. Scott and Irwin were on the moon.
Earl Swift has always been able to tell a compelling story about unlikely topics. He’s written two books about Tangier, a small island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, and the latest, Chesapeake Requiem, is a classic that we reviewed in 2018. He’s an acknowledged motorhead but even so, writing a 300+ page book about a vehicle that never logged more than 28 miles seems like an oddly-specific quest. He pulls it off brilliantly with Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings.
As in Requiem, Swift saves his most compelling stories for the end, but the build-up is fun, too. We learn about Wernher von Braun, the German rocket pioneer who endeared himself to Cold War-era Americans through Disney info-toons about space explorations despite having a Nazi past. Swift goes bumping across a NASA-engineered crater field in a rented SUV near Flagstaff, Arizona. We hear about mock-ups of fantastic roving Molabs that might have been launched to the moon on their own Saturn Vs. So many might-have-beens.
Across the Airless Wilds is a wonderful reminder of an age that seems light years ago—when government-funded programs could achieve great things and inspire private partnerships. It’s also a reminder of lost opportunities and never-realized dreams. But it’s a heck of a ride on one that was.