ACROSS THE AIRLESS WILDS Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal takes the Lunar Rover for a spin.
When it comes to the Apollo missions, it's perhaps inevitable that a few get much of the fanfare. Apollo 8 was the first to reach the Moon at Christmas 1968, gifting us with the famous Earthrise photograph. Apollo 11 was the first to place a crew on the lunar surface. Then there's Apollo 13, "a successful failure" full of drama that famously made its way to the big screen in the form of Ron Howard's titular film. Yet the high-point of Apollo may well have come in its final three missions, 15-17, when the astronauts had a most remarkable tool at their disposal: the Lunar Rover Vehicle (LRV). This Rover is the focus of Earl Swift's Across the Airless Wilds, documenting just how this remarkable vehicle came to be an integral part of Apollo's final act fifty years ago.

Given the subject matter, it might be easy to think that this would be a dry and technical read. On the contrary, Swift's prose makes it a highly accessible read, focusing as much on the remarkable cast of characters as the technical side of the Rover. They include Wernher von Braun, who set NASA on the both toward a rover when he was promoting space flight in the 1950s, and the Polish-born M.G. "Greg" Bekker, whose work on vehicle mobility laid the groundwork for rovers not just on the Moon but today on Mars. There are also numerous engineers such as Sam Romano and Frank Pavlics, who conceived of literally folding the Rover onto the side of the spider-like Lunar Module, making the final vehicle possible. And, of course, there are the astronauts from Jerry Carr, who never went to the Moon but played a role as one of the astronauts involved with it, to Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott and Apollo 16's Charlie Duke. It can be easy to forget that the Apollo missions were made possible by thousands of people, something that Swift wonderfully brings to life, detailing not only their histories but encountering many of them in the present day.

One of the remarkable things to come out of reading Swift's book is how unlikely it was that the Rover ended up going to the Moon at all. Tracing its history back to the 1950s, the idea of something like a car roaming across the lunar landscape was much-discussed but little explored. Indeed, despite all of the discussion and various companies, including carmaker GM and Lunar Module contractor Grumman spending literally years and their own money looking at Rover concepts, the entire thing came together incredibly quickly. Swift explores how the Rover as we know it today, perhaps one of the most iconic vehicles ever built, went from ideas that included a literal lab on wheels to the four-wheeled open-top vehicle through trial, error, and budget issues. It's also, finally, the story of how they allowed Apollo to at last deliver on the promise of exploration, taking three groups of astronauts farther than any human being has gone before or since. It's a story that makes it all the more remarkable that there are three now sitting a quarter of a million miles away from where you're reading these words.

Whether you are interested in the space race or simply seeking a good non-fiction read, Across the Airless Wilds has something to offer. It's the story of how an unlikely idea came to become a reality, brought to life by a cast of characters, and expanded our knowledge of the Moon. One that highlights the power of ideas and ingenuity, making it possible to move across the airless wilds of the Moon and beyond.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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