Airless Wilds

The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings

8:36 p.m. EST, December 12, 1972:

Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt braked to a stop alongside Nansen Crater, keenly aware that they were far, far from home. They had flown nearly a quarter-million miles to the man in the moon's left eye, landed at its edge, then driven five miles to this desolate, boulder-strewn hole. As they gathered rock samples, they strode at the outermost edge of man's travels. This place, this moment, marked extremes for a species born to wander.

     A few feet away sat the machine that made the achievement possible: an electric go-kart that folded like a business letter, weighed less than 80 pounds in the moon's reduced gravity, and muscled its way up mountains, around craters, and over broken plains on America's last three ventures to the lunar surface.

     In the decades since, the exploits of the astronauts on those final expeditions have dimmed in the shadow cast by the first moon landing. But Apollo 11 was mere prelude: while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trod a sliver of flat lunar desert smaller than a football field, Apollos 15, 16, and 17 each commanded a mountainous area the size of Manhattan. All told, their crews traveled 56 miles, and brought deeper science and a far more swashbuckling style of exploration to the moon. And they triumphed for one very American reason: they drove.

     Across the Airless Wilds puts the reader alongside the men who dreamed of driving on the moon and designed and built the vehicle, troubleshot its flaws, and strapped themselves into its seats. Shining a deserved spotlight on these overlooked characters and the missions they created, it's a celebration of genius, perseverance, and daring.

Critical praise

"Compelling. . . . Such Such are Mr. Swift’s narrative talents and the bounties of the source material that the book is a joy to read from beginning to end. . . . Swift has reminded readers of an endlessly fascinating chapter in space exploration with widespread implications for the future."                                                                                                                                                                                                                         -- Wall Street Journal

"Swift relays the awe-inspiring story of Apollo 17 and the lunar vehicle in a way that makes it all feel brand new. From the sheer human ingenuity of the moon missions to the deeply human figures inside the space suits, this book is a brilliantly observed homage to the human spirit."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  -- Newsweek

"Details the story of the development of the lunar rover, focusing in particular on three pioneering engineers who made the craft a reality. . . . Swift ably outlines their achievements in technology and project management, clarifying complex issues in layperson’s language. Even those who think they already know plenty about America’s space program will find deeper insights here."                                                                                                                                                                                                                       -- Booklist (starred review)

"The literature of lunar exploration has tended to focus on the earlier Apollo missions, with scant attention paid to the extraordinary achievements of the later rover expeditions—which were, in many respects, scientifically bolder and taught us a great deal more about our moon. Earl Swift lays out this great unsung saga with verve and magisterial sweep. After reading Across the Airless Wilds, you’ll begin to think of NASA's true golden age not in terms of ‘one small step,’ but as a series of cosmic car rides."                                                                                                                                         -- Hampton Sides, author of
In the Kingdom of Ice

"Swift has illuminated an underappreciated marvel of engineering and created a fabulous summer read. The entire second half of his book is a riveting travelogue of six astronauts’ 'lunar road trips' drawn from interviews and radio transcripts, augmented by priceless color photos that alone are worth the price."                                                                                                                                                                      -- The Virginian-Pilot

"Swift has produced an important, much needed, and excellent history of the lunar rover vehicle and its excursions on the final three Apollo missions. In addition, Swift has written the seminal history of the concept, design, and creation of perhaps the most unique automobile ever built. . . . Across the Airless Wilds is part history, part travelogue, but one hundred per cent terrific space history."                                                                                                                                                                                                               -- Balloons to Drones

"Well researched and fascinating. . . . Anyone interested in space exploration or engineering will find this book a worthwhile read."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     --  Machine Design 

"Fascinating. . . . The development of the lunar rover was perhaps a classic example of a spaceflight project, with cost overruns, technical issues, and a vehicle struggling to stay within its mass budget. It was, after all, a 'spacecraft on wheels,' as NASA’s project manager for the rover, Sonny Morea, put it, and while it looked like a car it would suffer the problems endemic to spacecraft. But, as in so many other projects, engineers overcame technical problems and cost pressures to deliver a rover. And what a rover it was."                                                                                                                                                                                           -- The Space Review                                                                                                                                                                     
"This is not just a book about the lunar rover—it’s also a book about humans, and the great things they can do when inspired. There are people here who jump off the page—and sometimes, off the moon’s surface. Vividly written, engaging, and fascinating. I started it one day and finished it the next, and I’m not a fast reader. I just didn’t want to stop." 
-- James Donovan, author of Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 

"In Across the Airless Wilds, Earl Swift skillfully tells the remarkable story of how vision, ingenuity, and some pretty fine engineering transformed lunar and planetary exploration.  A rare and compelling celebration ofthe human spirit."                                               
                                           -- Andrew H. Knoll, professor of Earth and Planetary Science at Harvard University                                                                                                                               and author of A Brief History of Earth

"Full of intrigue. . . . The latest by Swift will especially appeal to all those interested in U.S. space programs and anyone seeking a well-written story of action and adventure."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              -- Library Journal

"An overlooked achievement in the initial series of moon landings gets a well-deserved spotlight."                                                                                                                                                                                                      -- Kirkus

"For the origins and history of the Apollo lunar rover, there is no better guide than Earl Swift's beautifully written book. It details two decades of rover concepts, followed by two frantic years of building one for Apollo on a ridiculous schedule and an inadequate budget. But it paid off in three spectacular landings that used the rover for science—Apollos 15, 16, and 17. Swift also profiles the people who accomplished this feat; they are as fascinating as the machine itself.”     
                                  -- Michael J. Neufeld, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum                                                                                    and author of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

"Swift's attention to historical detail in setting the scene for the events he covers in Across the Airless Wilds is what helps to make the book so compelling. It’s well-researched, well-written, and revelatory."                                                                                                                                                                                                        -- Forbes