Native builds moon-rider

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 4, 2008

NATCHEZ — For one Natchez native, the art of off-roading has just hit new heights.

Lucien Junkin, a NASA robotics engineer, recently finished developing a prototype that’s being tested for use on the next mission to the moon.

The vehicle, a lunar truck named Chariot, is an audacious looking vehicle.

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It has gold trim, a dozen wheels and accommodates the driver in a turret that can rotate 360 degrees.

Junkin, a 1984 Cathedral graduate, describes the Chariot as a cross between a flatbed truck, an SUV and a bulldozer.

And while Junkin talks about the vehicle in a very matter-of-fact tone, as one might imagine a NASA engineer would, his involvement in the project’s creation is actually quite an accomplishment.

Junkin was the lead engineer on a team of 10 that constructed the lunar truck over a period of one year.

The truck that Junkin helped to create is one of the first such vehicles developed since the Apollo mission in the 1960s.

“It’s the next generation of lunar vehicles,” he said.

And as part of the next generation of lunar vehicles, the Chariot is sporting some pretty high-tech accessories.

It runs on lithium ion batteries, like a cell phone, has a completely redesigned drive train and has what Junkin called “crab like” steering capabilities.

Junkin said the steering system will allow the vehicle to turn its wheels in literally any direction.

But all those bells and whistles did not come cheap.

The vehicle comes with a price tag of about $3.5 to 5 million.

And this first version of the Chariot will never leave the atmosphere; it will only be tested on earth.

Junkin said much of that cost comes from the fact that the vehicle had to be built from scratch.

Since the vehicle is a prototype, its parts had to be dreamed up, then built.

And building parts for a machine with extra terrestrial capabilities is not easy.

Junkin said the housing for the vehicle’s differential took 800 hours to machine.

“That’s about half a man year,” he said.

Junkin said now that testing has started on the Chariot, it’s shown promise.

Junkin said the Chariot’s ability to articulate it’s wheels has given it an unexpected advantage in hill climbing.

Junkin since said the wheels can turn back and forth the Chariot can basically “walk up hill.”

“It’s pretty cool,” he said.

The Chariot’s next stop is Moses Lake, Wash., where it will undergo even more testing.

Junkin said terrain in that area is the closest to lunar in the United States.

The Chariot’s next of kin will likely land on the moon some time around 2016 or so and begin preparations for man’s next trip to the moon, expected around 2021. Junkin said in the time between the Chariot’s arrival and man’s, the lunar truck will make landing pads and other preparations for later arrivals — all by remote control.