How to fix a fender bender in space

By Charles Fishman

This is the 30th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 

During Apollo 17, after his first cruise around the Moon with crewmate Jack Schmitt in their lunar rover, mission commander Gene Cernan was working near the parked rover when he had an accident.

A geology hammer he had stowed in a pocket of his spacesuit caught the edge of the right rear fender on the rover.

Cernan narrated back to Mission Control what happened.

“Oh, you won’t believe it.” [Pause] “There goes the fender.” [Pause] “Oh, shoot.” A few moments later, he radioed, “I hate to say it, I’m going to have to take some time to try and get the fender back on. I caught it with my hammer and it just popped off.”

Cernan tried to repair it right then, using a roll of duct tape that was stowed on the lunar rover itself, but a mounting clip had snapped off, and the tape wouldn’t hold well because of the gritty lunar dirt. NASA had once considered the idea that astronauts should be able to fix their own spacecraft but had abandoned it in 1964. “I never thought I’d be out here doing this,” Cernan said as he worked on the fender. At one point, Mission Control reported that he had fallen “10 minutes behind the timeline.”

Said Cernan, “I’m only going to spend another minute or two on the fender.”

How to fix a fender bender in space |

[Photo: courtesy of NASA]

The astronauts tried to use the rover without the fender, but dust rooster-tailing off the rear wheel covered the astronauts, the controls of the rover, and all their equipment in the abrasive lunar particles.

They concluded that the rover wasn’t usable without that rear fender, because the dust just interfered with everything too much, and the astronauts had two more Moon explorations to go, each scheduled for more than seven hours.

Fixing the fender turned out to be critical to the rest of the mission.

How to fix a fender bender in space |

[Photo: courtesy of NASA]

So, with some help and instructions from Mission Control, Cernan and Schmitt constructed a replacement fender inside the lunar module, using four stiff, plastic-coated maps of the Moon that they taped together with duct tape. They were able to use clips borrowed from the lunar module’s optical telescope to mount the improvised fender in place. The New York Times called the repair “Yankee ingenuity at its best.” (Duct tape was indispensable in a much more serious Apollo event—during Apollo 13, the astronauts used it to cobble together the equipment they had on-board to fashion a system that scrubbed CO2 out of the spaceship air and kept them alive until they could return to Earth.)

Back on Earth, the president of the Auto Body Association of America, Reg Predham, was so impressed that immediately—before the astronauts had even left lunar orbit—he honored Cernan and Schmitt by officially making them lifetime members of the Auto Body Association. “We’re delighted to see that when something like this happens on the Moon,” Predham said from his auto body repair shop in Neptune City, New Jersey, “that they had the ingenuity to put it all back together. Those astronauts: College graduates. Pilots and geologists. They make damn good body-and-fender men.”

How to fix a fender bender in space |
One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).


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