This answer to How (the heck) did Lunokhod 2 drive, navigate and survive a ~40 kilometer drive over four months on the Moon using 1970's technology? discusses some of the technologies that made this long trek possible, but a comment there suggests (unsurprisingly) that it wasn't always easy.

Question: What was it actually like driving the Lunokhod lunar rovers live from the ground? What were some of the biggest challenges?

Did drivers just put in a leasurily 4 hour driving session then head to the beach to relax, or was it day after day of grueling, stressful hard work?


2 Answers 2


With the difficulties of driving Lunokhod 1, Lunokhod 2 had improvements: the camera used for driving was mounted higher, to give a better field of view and the camera frame rate was 3 seconds compared to 20 seconds for Lunokhod 1.

Lunokhod 2 carried an additional TV camera, mounted higher to make driving easier for terrestrial controllers.

Despite craters and rilles, the terrain traversed by the lunokhods was relatively flat.

This webpage give a chronology of events for Lunokhod 2. Unfortunately many of the pictures are missing. The quote above is from page 351. On page 355, the document states,

The longest daily drives were on 17 February (2230 m) and 18 February (3130 m).

On 20 March controllers stopped the rover for the night near a prominent 400 m diameter crater. This third day's drive had covered 16 533 m, a remarkable achievement for remote rover operation.

Then on page 357 it states,

The fourth lunar day included 8600 m of driving.

Lunokhod 2 had improved visibility provided by a top-mounted navigation camera, and a higher frame rate than Lunokhod 1 (every 3 seconds versus 20 seconds). These improvements, and the growing experience of ground controllers, were largely responsible for its ability to drive long distances.

If distances of 16.53 km could be achieved in one day, or even 8.6 km or 3.13 km, this would suggest that despite a limited field of view and driving by "slide show" (continuous still photography) with a refresh rate of 3 seconds driving Lunokhod 2 may not have been very difficult, for the terrain traversed.

Each five man driving crew worked shifts of 2 hours duration.

Once Lunokhod was on the moon, the success of the mission would be in the hands of two five-man crews chosen from the military’s missile defense corps. In the spring of 1968, candidates were carefully screened for engineering expertise, capacity for prolonged mental focus and attention, quick reaction times, the ability to process information quickly, good long-term and short-term memory, and vision and hearing. So thorough was the selection process that some of the men thought they were being recruited for the cosmonaut corps, until they were told of their real mission: to operate the first wheeled vehicle on the surface of another world.

Only one member of each crew would drive the rover. Behind him would sit the crew commander, who would oversee the driver’s handling of the rover. Joining them in the control room would be a navigator, a radio antenna operator, and the flight engineer, who would monitor the rover’s systems. Each crew would operate the rover for two hours; then the other crew would take control. At the Lavochkin plant the crew members familiarized themselves with every aspect of the craft and spent hours practicing with a mockup on a specially constructed “lunodrome” near the mission’s control center, in the Crimean city of Simferopol.

... Under driver Gabdulkhay Latypov’s control, the rover descended one of the two ramps extended from the descent stage and stood on the moon’s surface, ready to begin its expedition.

Gripping in his right hand a control stick that resembled a car’s gearshift, Latypov could make the rover go forward at one of two speeds (0.5 or 1.2 mph) or go in reverse. He and Vyacheslav Dovgan, the other crew’s driver, turned the craft not by rotating the wheels, which were fixed, but by slowing down one side relative to the other, the way one steers a tank.

Latypov and Dovgan’s only guidance came from a monitor, which displayed images from Lunokhod’s two low-resolution television cameras. To any video game enthusiast it sounds simple—but this was nothing like a video game. The cameras did not send a continuous stream of images, but rather single frames, like a slide show, at intervals that varied from seven to 20 seconds. And because radio signals took three seconds to travel round trip between Earth and the moon, the driver didn’t see the results of his actions for many long moments. For this reason, if crew commanders Nikolai Yeremenko and Igor Fyodorov saw Lunokhod heading toward catastrophe, they could push a button to halt the rover.

Dovgan, now 66, was well prepared by intensive training. “Driving on the moon felt even easier than it was in the lunodrome,” he says, but his comment belies the difficulties of navigating the rover. The low resolution of the slide show made it difficult to spot craters and boulders, especially at high sun angles, and there was a “dead zone”—a three-foot-wide area immediately in front of the rover that Lunokhod’s cameras could not see. The only solution, according to Dogvan, was to memorize the features in this area from the previous image, before the rover reached it. “When we were looking ahead and thinking of the obstacles that we did see, we also had to remember what was just behind,” he says.

Dovgan also had to constantly verbalize what he saw to Fyodorov. “103,” Dovgan would say, using the commander’s call sign, “this is 101 reporting on the situation. Twenty degrees left of the course, a stone; distance, five meters; height, 35 [centimeters], width, 50. Straight ahead, a crater, diameter, nine meters. To the right, 15 degrees, a gap. Decision: Will turn left 60 degrees to avoid both crater and stone, and then regain the straight-ahead direction.” Although Fyodorov sometimes challenged Dovgan before approving his plans, he ultimately trusted his driver’s judgment as if Dovgan were actually on the moon. And indeed, Dovgan sometimes felt as if he were. “Not that I forgot that I was on Earth, but it felt like I was so phased into my work that the only thing that wasn’t part of me being on the moon was the constant, continuous reporting,” he recalls. “It almost felt like I was talking to myself all the time, or that I was talking to Lunokhod.”

... As the controllers gained more experience, they also gained confidence, until they were able to let the rover proceed as long as they could see no clear hazard on the monitors. Progress had to be halted for three days during the lunar noon, when the lack of shadows made driving too dangerous.

... large rocks—were hazards the drivers and commanders wanted to avoid. Having learned (just as the Apollo astronauts had) that distances on the moon are difficult to perceive, and wary of the time delay, Lunokhod rarely ventured closer than about seven feet from a boulder. “They were cautious people,” Basilevsky says about the crews, adding that he never saw them disagree about how to proceed, or any other breach of military discipline

... the crews’ supervisors, who equated the mission’s success with the total distance logged by the rover. The only way to obtain panoramic images with Lunokhod’s high-resolution cameras was to use the craft’s narrow-beam antenna, which required the rover to be stationary. At one point, Basilevsky recalls, “We could see beautiful rock fragments. I was saying to Babakin, ‘Let’s stop here. We’ll make good panoramas; we’ll see something unusual here.’ His deputies told me, ‘Sasha, it is Lunokhod, not Lunostop.’ ”

It was even harder for Basilevsky to use Lunokhod to obtain stereo images, one of the geologists’ key tools for studying lunar landforms. The easiest way was to take a panorama, have the rover turn in place for a few degrees, then stop and take a second panorama. But for the mission managers, taking a second panorama of “the same boring place” precluded the logging of more distance, which looked good in Pravda, the state newspaper. To publicists, “it was a serious indicator of our success: meters, meters, meters,”

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ " ... meters, meters, meters", it sounds likes the key performance indicator and mantra for tunneling contractors, not lunar (or cosmic) explorers. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Aug 17, 2021 at 10:34
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting idea for a video game, although I suppose it would not sell well--too slow? $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2021 at 22:09

The Lunokhod crew lived and worked according to the schedule that was determined by the visibility of the Moon from the Crimea. One of the drivers, V. Dovgan, wrote a detailed memoir about how it was. According to the memoirs of V. Dovgan, they played volleyball after work. After the first intense communication with the lunar rover, they took a bus and went to the bathhouse early in the morning. There is no English translation of this book. But there is a book in English that uses fragments of these and other memories and interviews:

Afterward, everyone had headed down to Shkolnoye. More drills and classwork. Familiarization with the control facility. Lunadrome exercises. What a blur. And now here was Dovgan, underneath the Crimean dusk, wrapping up a friendly volleyball game inside the Residential Zone while- all those memories washed gently over him. He had that victorious first mission tucked tightly under his belt, was well into another, and savored the pleasure of deciding how else to spend his remaining free time until the lunar morning came once again. Vyacheslav Dovgan was in a happy place indeed.

The book does not contain technical details. Everything is discarded here that you can find in encyclopedias. The contents of the book are the lives of people who invented machines and controlled them on other planets.

In Russian, this interview with V. Dovgan is most suitable as an answer:

По его словам, в экипаже было 11 человек. "Были водитель, оператор антенны, штурман, бортинженер и командир. Тогда и появилось это слово - "экипаж". Каждые два часа они менялись, потому что зона радиовидимости над Симферополем - девять часов, это то время, когда мы видим Луну

translation: According to him, there were 11 people in the crew. “There was a driver, antenna operator, navigator, flight engineer and commander. Then this word appeared -“ crew. ”Every two hours they changed, because the radio visibility zone over Simferopol is nine hours, this is the time when we see the Moon

"Оператор антенны и командир уходили со своих пунктов на время, а штурман и бортинженер менялись местами. Один отвечал в этом расчете за исполнение всей программы этого сеанса, а второй находился в "горячем" резерве".

translation: "The antenna operator and the commander left their points for a while, and the navigator and flight engineer changed places. One was responsible in this crew for the execution of the entire program of this session, and the second was in the "hot" reserve.

По его словам, на объект приезжали 150 человек: вся экспедиция, ученые, конструкторы, разработчики с разных фирм, а экипаж - "это тот орган в системе, который осуществлял непосредственное движение и выдавал все команды".

"Рабочий день - зона радиовидимости, к примеру, начинается в 22 часа. Плюс девять часов - в семь утра все заканчивается. В рабочее время никакого питания, всем некогда. В восемь утра завтрак. Потом спать до 12 часов - три часа сна. Потом обед и идем на пункт, разбираем, что прошло за этот сеанс и готовимся к новому сеансу. Выдерживали нормально, рядом с нами всегда были медики. Восемь дней в режиме максимальной концентрации, но мы этого не замечали, были молодые, и еще после сна иногда выходили играть в волейбол", - рассказал Довгань.

По его словам, участники проекта периодически ездили в Евпаторию купаться, а потом садились в обычный поезд и ехали обратно на работу. "И все знали, кто ехал с нами в поезде, что это едут луноходчики", - отметил он.


According to him, 150 people came to the site: the entire expedition, scientists, designers, developers from different firms, and the crew "is the organ in the system that carried out direct movement and issued all the commands."

"The working day - the radio visibility zone, for example, begins at 10 pm. Plus nine hours - at 7 am everything ends. During working hours, no food, everyone has no time. Breakfast at 8 am. Then sleep until 12 o'clock - three hours of sleep. Then lunch and go to the checkpoint, sort out what has passed during this session and prepare for a new session. We stood normally, there were always doctors next to us. Eight days in maximum concentration mode, but we did not notice it, we were young, and sometimes even after sleep went out to play volleyball," Dovgan said.

According to him, the project participants periodically went to Eupatoria to swim, and then got on a regular train and went back to work. “And everyone knew who was traveling with us on the train, that they were "moon walkers",” he said.


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