50 Years Later—Footsteps and Tire Tracks Still on the Moon

Photo caption: Bill Tinnin proudly displays the 50th anniversary tee-shirt he received which commemorates the upcoming of astronauts landing on the moon.

Few remember 50 years ago— June 20, 1969—when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and uttered those now famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Even fewer are aware that every astronaut who went to the moon trained in Flagstaff –and occasionally, in Yavapai County.

Very few know that the man who built the prototype for the ultimate “Moon Buggy” which astronauts drove is a native Arizonan born in Yavapai County. He is Bill Tinnin.

Tinnin, now in his ’80s, retired with his wife Pam in Prescott Valley. He had a decades-long distinguished career with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Flagstaff. He smiles, “That was one helluva job, something I’ll never forget as long as I live.”

Born in Jerome, he graduated from Flagstaff High School. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he later worked for the Navajo Army Depot before joining USGS.

About 63 years ago, Tinnin and his colleagues were asked if they could build a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) to be used by astronauts. He says they responded, “Sure, why not.”

He was then a mechanic at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) office in Flagstaff. He was one of 411,000 people across the nation working for NASA and its contractors to make moon exploration possible.

Granted, the moon buggy is only a small piece of the now world-famous Project Apollo that put the first man on the moon. But building it posed challenges never experienced before. The challenges began 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.”

Tinnin didn’t realize then that he was part of 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. That started the Apollo missions, which lasted from 1960 to 1973—“the pride of space exploration.”

Tinnin now praises the late Eugene “Gene” Shoemaker, a distinguished USGS geologist, with having the vision to realize that astronauts needed far more than foot power to roam a landscape tattooed by eons of space debris impacts on its surface. Shoemaker persuaded NASA officials that the area surrounding Flagstaff was geologically similar to the moon’s terrain. The area had volcanic craters, lava fields and Meteor Crater, a huge impact crater formed 50,000 years ago where a meteorite struck the high desert just east of Flagstaff.

The lanky retiree says designing and building a vehicle that could safely travel in extreme rocky gullies and lava-flow filled ravines and craters around northern and central Arizona proved a major challenge for scientists, engineers and mechanics.

He reflects, “To think of putting such a vehicle on a chunk of rock a quarter of a million miles away in gravity one-seventh that of Earth—mind-blowing.”

Tinnin explains, “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, cameras and other stuff. That’s why, in 1965, he told us to use design concepts suggested by General Motors and Boeing. We did. We then built what became prototypes for the Lunar Rover that we’ve all seen on TV and in photographs.”

By “we,” Tinnin includes Rutledge “Putty” Mills, Dick Wiser, Walt Fahey and himself. All collaborated building the first training vehicles ever used by astronauts in their preparing for lunar explorations.

In 1967, the USGA team began hand-crafting Explorer and other LRVs in a rented machine shop in east 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. Combustion engines were simply not feasible because the moon has no oxygen.

The pride of the construction team – GROVER (abbreviation for” Gravity Rover”). Tinnin explained he and the team used design concepts proposed by Boeing. “We used their plans and built it. We used an old truck frame and other surplus stuff we scrounged.”

The cost for the USGS version–about $2,000. Tinnin laughs. ”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 of creativity. “We needed an antenna on GROVER. None existed that we knew of. I took an old umbrella, stripped it, covered with a metal mesh. It worked. Cost? A few dollars.” 

Tinnin grants that building the LRV prototype was not nearly as technologically challenging or glamorous as designing and building of rockets, spacecraft, space suits and other equipment necessary to transport astronauts across the void of space to the moon. Yet he grins broadly. “No one had more fun than we did.”

NASA and USGS wanted the area where astronauts practiced with LVRs to be similar to the moon’s surface. USGS personnel took maps prepared by Patricia Bridges, a USGS cartographic artist. They used them as a template. On a large flat cinder field northeast of Flagstaff, they planted and exploded tons of dynamite and created more than 200 craters that replicated the lunar surface. They later created yet another similar crater field near Cottonwood.

The Apollo program is over—but not forgotten, at least by Tinnin. “I have patches from every Apollo mission. I have them mounted and framed in my home office with all my other memorabilia.”

Tinnin is nostalgic 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.”

To see Grover or other exhibits related to Apollo moon missions, visit the USGS Shoemaker Astrogeology Science Center, Building 6, 2255 N. Gemini Drive, Flagstaff.