Calling it “…the biggest challenge I ever had was when I was asked if we could build a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) to be used by astronauts,” Bill Tinnin and his colleagues said, ”Sure, why not?” At the time, he was a mechanic at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) office in Flagstaff
That was 62 years ago. It was a small piece of the now world-famous Project Apollo that put the first man on the moon.
It all started when then-President John F. Kennedy told Congress in May 1960 that the U.S. should commit itself to “…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” That started the Apollo missions, which lasted from 1960 to 1973.
Nine years later, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered those now famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” on June 20, 1969.
Armstrong did not realize, of course, that he was indirectly praising a hardcore team of scientists, geologists, astrophysicists and “in the trenches” staff at the Flagstaff USGS. They collaborated and cooperated with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) personnel to make Apollo the pride of space exploration.
A little known but key player among the 411,000 across the nation who worked for NASA and its contractors who made moon exploration possible – Tinnin.
Tinnin, now in his 80s, retired in Prescott Valley after a lengthy and distinguished career with USGS in Flagstaff. He grins broadly, “That was one helluva job, something I’ll never forget as long as I live.”
Tinnin, born in Jerome, graduated from Flagstaff High School. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he later worked for the Navajo Army Depot before joining USGS.
He said designing and building a vehicle that could safely travel in extreme rocky washes and gullies and lava-flow filled ravines and craters on Earth was challenge enough for scientists, engineers and mechanics. “To think of putting such a vehicle on a chunk of rock some 250,000 miles away in gravity one-sixth that of Earth – mind-blowing.”
Tinnin grants that building the LRV prototype was not nearly as technologically challenging or glamorous as was designing and building of rockets, spacecraft, space suits and other equipment necessary to transport astronauts across the void of space to the moon. Even so, Tinnin praised his USGS boss Eugene “Gene” Shoemaker, a distinguished geologist, with having the vision to realize that astronauts would need far more than foot power to move over a landscape tattooed by eons of space debris impacting its surface. Shoemaker is also credited with persuading NASA officials that the area surrounding Flagstaff was geologically similar to the moon’s terrain, with its volcanic craters, lava fields and Meteor Crater, a huge impact crater formed 50,000 years ago when a meteorite struck the earth.
Tinnin explained, “Gene and his colleagues knew astronauts needed to train in an area as similar to the moon as possible. He also knew to survey the moon’s surface, they needed to travel great distances and transport equipment, to collect rock samples and to haul all the scientific equipment and cameras and other stuff. That’s why, in 1965, he told us to use design concepts suggested by General Motors and Boeing. We did, and built what became the prototypes for the Lunar Rover that we’ve all seen on TV and in photographs.”
By “us,” Tinnin meant Rutledge “Putty” Mills, Dick Wiser, Walt Fahey and Tinnin. All collaborated building the first training vehicles ever used by astronauts in their preparing for lunar explorations.
In 1967, the USGS team began hand-crafting Explorer and other LRVs in a rented machine shop on the east side of Flagstaff. Those hand-built four-wheel drive vehicles featured electric motors and manual steering – either forward or backward – and controls at either end for a driver in a space suit. Because the moon has no oxygen, combustion engines were simply not feasible.
But the pride of the construction team was Grover (the nickname for a Gravity Rover). Boeing proposed the concept for the field simulator Grover that Tinnin and his colleagues built. Tinnin explained, “We used their plans and built it – using a frame of steel tubing and other surplus stuff we scrounged.”
The cost for the USGS version of the LRV was about $2,000, Tinnin said with a laugh. “We built it for that, but NASA multiplied the cost by about 10 and said it cost $20,000. And when the one used on the moon was built by Boeing, it cost more than a million. Go figure.”
He cites one example. “NASA told us we needed to have an antenna on Grover. None existed that we knew of, so I took an old umbrella, stripped it, covered with a metal mesh, and it worked. Cost? A few dollars.”
NASA and USGS wanted the area where astronauts used LVRs to be as similar as possible to the moon’s surface as possible. USGS took maps prepared by Patricia Bridges, a USGS cartographic artist, and used them as a template. On a large, flat cinder field northeast of Flagstaff – the Bonita Lava Flow – they used tons of dynamite to create more than 200 craters that replicated the landing site of Apollo 11 on the lunar surface. They later created yet another crater field near Cottonwood that was used by Alan Shepard and Apollo 14.
Tinnin grows sentimental about his experience. “I’m proud to say that all the astronauts – 20 of them – who went to the moon trained on the vehicles we built for the crater fields USGS created. I was privileged to know and work with them, and I have patches from every Apollo mission. I have them mounted and framed in my home office with all my other memorabilia.”
What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Gordon Swann, a lead USGS biologist who trained all the astronauts about the geology of the moon, told me that no matter what, make those LVRs safe. Lives depend on that. Swann’s wife, Jody, was Shoemaker’s administrative aide. ”
Of all your experiences, what was your favorite?
“Traveling and working all those years, all over the nation, with some of the most dedicated scientists, technicians and astronauts who believed wholeheartedly in the Apollo missions.”
Where do you now like to travel?
My wife, Pam, and I thoroughly enjoy getting into our RV and heading to places like Wyoming and Montana. We really loved our RVing adventures in Alaska.
What’s your favorite kind of music?
I really like country and western. In fact, that’s how I met Pam – at a country-western dance in Flagstaff.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
“Well, years ago, I was in some pretty good western movies – Broken Arrow in 1950 and Pony Solider in 1952. Both of them were filmed in Sedona.“ QCBN
By Ray Newton
Those interested in seeing Grover or other exhibits related to Apollo moon missions should visit the USGS Shoemaker Astrogeology Science Center located in Building 6, 2255 N. Gemini Drive, Flagstaff.
Bill Tinnin is proud to show off the tee shirt he received which commemorates the upcoming 50th anniversary of astronauts landing on the moon. (Photo by Ray Newton)