As we watch workers fleeing the radiation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, it might be time to ask a question. Where are the robots? The Japanese continually brag about their robots. But frankly, their scientists and engineers seem fixated on creating robots that look like teenage girls and can sing pop music. Not exactly a practical design for dealing with nuclear meltdowns. But the history of robotics does have a splendid example for us. The Lunokhod, Russian for ‘Moon Walker’, was the little robot that could walk on the Moon. Years later, it′s designers built a variation, literally overnight, that saved Europe at a town called – Chernobyl.
Those of you who read my work here regularly know that I have quite the ‘fetish’ for all things concerning the Space Race. So it should be no surprise that the other night, when the Science Channel reran an old documentary called “Tank on the Moon”, I was watching! This is a story of high adventure, practical innovation and cloak-and-dagger secrecy. As they often say, truth is stranger than fiction, and usually far more interesting!
Our tale begins in 1961. Shortly after Alan Shepard earned his 15 minutes of fame, flying a sub-orbital mission into space for 15 minutes, (what do you think inspired Andy Warhol?) President John F. Kennedy, like any good Irishman, threw his hat over the wall and challenged America to reach for the Moon. The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States was now officially on! Who could land men there first, and bring them back alive, would win the glory!
But at a tank facotory in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, an engineer named Alexander Kermurdzhian got tapped by none other than rocket-master Sergei Korolev for the job of a lifetime! Korolev had an ambitious program for putting the USSR on the Moon, including landing a robotic vehicle on it′s surface. Korolev contacted Kermurdzhian and basically told him, ‘You build it and I′ll launch it.’ Thus, the Lunokhod program was born.
There were many obstacles to overcome. First of all, controlling such a vehicle would be a challenge, as computers of the day took up whole floors of buildings. The science of robotics in the early 1960s was more science fiction than fact. Another problem at the time was that nobody knew what the surface of the Moon was like? Would their vehicle sink in the sand?
Sergei Korolev gave Kermurdzhian a free hand to designing the Lunokhod. After a series of prototypes and tests, a design came together by 1965. Things looked very promising for the Soviets to win the Space Race. But a series of setbacks began as the Soviets largest rocket, the N-1, kept blowing up. In 1966, Korolev died and the entire program seemed doomed.
Kermurdzhian and his team pressed forward. Drivers of the Lunokhod were selected from military pilots. They trained to operate the ‘Moon Walker’ from 250,000 miles away, with a 30-second time delay, using a black-and-white TV monitor and a German-built joystick. On February 19, 1969, the first Lunokhod blasted off, but the Proton rocket exploded. Meanwhile, America won the race to land men on the Moon first. The Lunokhod program, however, still went forward for one simple reason. It was something the Americans hadn’t done yet, nor would for nearly 30 years!
Regrouped, another Lunokhod was readied for launch. On November 10, 1970, the second attempt to launch succeeded. Ten years of secrecy ended on November 17 when the Lunokhod landed safely on the Moon. Now the trick was to roll the Lunokhod off it′s lander using a flimsy ramp. The operator on Earth was so nervous, his pulse rate was said to 140! The Lunokhod was on the Moon and making tracks. The first time a robotic vehicle roamed an alien surface. At the Kremlin, all work ceased as they sang The Internationale.
Celebrations went across all 11 time zones of the U.S.S.R.. The party almost ended abruptly when the Lunokhod fell into not one, but two craters. But technicians skillfully backed it out each time. Designed to work for only 90 days, Lunokhod wound up cruising the lunar surface for 11 months, conducting a series of scientific experiments. A triumph which was rewarded with a another, improved Lunokhod launched to the Moon. While the robot was the star of the show, the world knew nothing of the men who built it.
All that changed in 1986, when a fire raged inside reactor core of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl. At first, the event was kept secret until radiation detectors 1,500 miles away in Sweden alerted the world of the emergency three days after it started. The situation was rapidly spinning out of control as radiation killed workers and firemen who battled the disaster. Moscow summoned Alexander Kermurdzhian and explained that they needed a robotic vehicle urgently to clear debris so the fire could be extinguished. Because of Soviet secrecy, few knew who they were or what they were capable of accomplishing. Kermurdzhian and his staff worked around the clock and built a robot called the STR-1. Within a week, they constructed the remote-controlled bulldozer. On July 15, a helicopter set the STR-1 down of the roof and it began it’s work. With no time to train operators, the robot engineers themselves braved the radiation at a nearby facility to control the vehicle. One even volunteered to venture on the roof when circumstances required.
For just over 2 months, the STR-1 robot and it’s engineers worked to save Europe and did their part to seal the Chernobyl reactor. A few years later, as the Soviet Union collapsed, Alexander Kermurdzhian and his team were invited to demonstrate their vehicles in the United States by NASA. The technology they developed help led to the Mars Pathfinder and Sojouner Rover mission, launched on December 4, 1996. On July 4, 1997, the Sojouner rover landed on Mars, becoming only the third robotic vehicle to cruise an alien surface!
So I ask you, where are all those incredible Japanese robots we keep hearing about? Why are they not being deployed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant? Are they busy taking singing lessons or being fitted with Sailor Moon outfits? When it comes to practical science and engineering, the old Russian team led by Alexander Kermurdzhian which built the Lunokhod, the Moon Walker, is certainly something to be remembered and admired. If they were around back in Stalin′s day and could destroy German tanks, you can bet that some bombed-out factory in Stalingrad would have been building them by the thousands! The team distinguished itself not only in the field of space exploration, but applying their skills when badly needed to help save Europe during the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Lunokhod, the little robot that could, and did, will always have a warm place in my heart. The You-Tube link below will take you to the first of 3 parts of the Science Channel′s documentary, “Tank on the Moon.”