As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11—truly a monumental event in both US and world history—we here at RideApart would like to take this opportunity to talk to you about another space race. Tensions were high between the US and the Soviet Union, a fact of which I’m sure you’re eminently aware. What you may not realize is that both countries didn’t only want to make spacecraft and spacemen a reality. No, friends—they both also fervently wanted to make space bikes happen.
It’s worth noting here that both countries did get to prototype stage with their respective designs. However, the US ultimately decided that the four-wheeled Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) was more practical for the purpose they had in mind on Apollo 15 than its minibike design. Meanwhile, according to Russian space agency Roscosmos, development of their “space motorcycle” still continues to this day. While both countries did envision space bikes, one placed more emphasis on the “bike” part and one on the “space” part, as you’ll soon see.
The US “Moon-Cycle” Would Have Been An Electric Trail Bike.
According to an AMA Magazine article from May 1972, NASA’s Spacecraft Design Division in Houston, Texas began designing a minibike specifically for moon use in the late 1960s. They wanted it to be small, portable, and ideally collapsible so that they wouldn’t have to redesign their existing landing vehicle. Even though they had “practically no background in motorcycles, trail riding, or mini-bikes,” according to the AMA, they started working up a design.
One big problem they encountered was, at the time, not knowing what the moon’s surface was like. Available motorcycle models seemed like they wouldn’t handle properly, with what little information they had from using computer calculations. They needed a frame and fork design that would offer both low-speed stability and performance.
Tires were also an issue, and at one point, metal tires were considered to avoid potential temperature and inflation issues. It was thought that both these things could occur with standard rubber tires in this specific circumstance. The AMA states that the electric motor used to power this design was a 10-pound ⅝ horsepower unit, which was powered by a 30-ampere battery of unknown designation. Also, the estimated top speed of the prototype as designed was 7mph—if you pushed it.
Design was awkward, at best. After all, wearing a space suit was significantly bulkier than any motorcycle gear of the time. The minibike had to take the unique ergonomic situation of a rider in a space suit into consideration. This design also changed the throttle to one where “the rider would simply insert his gloved hand into a pot-like device and twist,” rather than having to fiddle with a standard throttle in a bulkily-gloved hand.
Over at Common Tread, Mark Gardiner observed that the LRV developed by Boeing and GM used silver-zinc potassium non-rechargeable batteries, so it seems likely that the battery used in this model may have been similarly configured. To cool the battery pack, NASA planned on using beeswax, which astronauts would in fact have to mind carefully once it melted by stopping long enough to let it re-solidify, thus keeping the battery from overheating.
Ultimately, as mentioned above, NASA went with the LRV on Apollo 15 instead. One reason: a minibike couldn’t have towed the Modular Equipment Transporter, which astronauts colloquially called “the rickshaw,” according to Common Tread. The MET had been used on Apollo 14, and was initially planned for use on Apollo 15 as well, until plans changed to use the LRV instead.
Meanwhile, Russia’s “Space Motorcycle” Would Have Floated In Space.
In 2018, Russia’s space program, Roscosmos, posted the video linked above on YouTube. According to Vice, in the early 1960s, first manufacturer Zvedza and later Soviet military station Almaz developed prototypes of “maneuverable space vehicles” that sadly never got off the ground. By 1984, the idea was back in play after NASA started using the manned maneuvering unit (MMU) propulsion backpack.
Once it existed, the space bike would allow cosmonauts to easily ride between stations. Instead of the tether that is now familiar to anyone who spends time watching International Space Station videos, cosmonauts could be zipping around on these space bikes.
The image looks less like the motorcycles we enjoy riding here on Earth and more like a mechanized space pool toy. Still, after all, our bikes usually roll on the ground and only occasionally fly through the sky here on Earth. A design for a bike that propels its rider through space will be different from any vehicle that rolls on the ground, by pure necessity.
Neither the space bike nor the moon-cycle has yet come to pass—but we’re all still here dreaming about motorcycles in space, so hopefully someday, they’ll happen in real life and not just in animation.