Out in the desert in New Mexico, in the dusty terrain bordering a commercial spaceport, I got the chance to take a wild ride in a "lunar rover."
Why is "lunar rover" in quotation marks, you might ask? Well, the all-terrain vehicle that I rode through the desert never left tracks on the moon's surface and, in fact, wasn't even built by NASA or any other space agency to be used by astronauts on the moon. Instead, it is a stock Polaris RZR, which is a dune buggy made for tough terrain. It was also used as a mock lunar rover in the hit space thriller "Ad Astra."
In the film (mild spoilers ahead), astronaut Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt, has to travel across the lunar surface to a remote launch site. En route to the launch site on a rover, McBride is accosted by moon pirates, who are riding in slightly different rovers. (The vehicle that I rode appeared to be one of these "pirate rovers.")
This scene was shot in Death Valley in the northern Mojave Desert in California and later edited to look like the surface of the moon. But, out in the New Mexico desert near Virgin Galactic's commercial spaceport, Spaceport America, I got a taste of what the desert chase was really like.
At a media event supporting the Blu-ray and DVD release of the film, which was hosted at Spaceport America, I had the opportunity to ride in one of the vehicles that was used as a lunar rover in the film. The vehicle was driven by Eric Underwood, who worked as a stunt driver in the movie and a mechanic for the vehicles. He drove me around the desert and I got a chance to feel the thrill of "driving on the moon."
The ride was exhilarating, and I felt like Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke, who co-piloted a real lunar rover on the moon's surface decades ago. And, while the vehicle didn't have tires made of zinc-coated piano wire and titanium threads woven into a chevron-pattern mesh (like the real lunar rovers did, to prevent the wheels from sinking into the soil), it gave me a tiny look into what such a ride might be like.
Apparently, during the filming of the movie, the cast loved riding around in the rovers as much as I did. "Everybody was super excited," Underwood told me during the ride, referring to the cast.
I attended the 'Ad Astra' media event for Space.com on a trip paid for by 20th Century Fox.
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Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.