“The Law of the Stronger: Ferenc Pavlics and the Apollo Lunar Rover

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  How Ferenc Pavlics, a Hungarian engineer working in Soviet-controlled Hungary, escaped Budapest during the attempted revolt of 1956, came to the United States, and created the Apollo Lunar Rover as an engineer with General Motors.
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  Q U E S T 18:1 20117  by David ClowFor the first time in 40 years, wecan see them again: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter photos of theApollo landing sites show the Lunar Roving Vehicles (LRV), three brightspecks on the gray lunar dust at theMarsh of Decay, the DescartesHighlands, and the Valley of Taurus-Littrow, and leading to them, distinctdark trails marked by the drivers who leftthem there. Amillion years may findthem unchanged, among the longest last-ing and best preserved of all human arti-facts. Their journey began long beforetheir respective launches, and that storyreveals much about why it was theUnited States and not the Soviet Unionthat made tire tracks on the lunar surface. Wheels on the Moon The fantasy of driving on theMoon preceded the fact of driving onEarth, just as H.G. Wells Columbiad   blasted there before the Wright brothersflew at Kitty Hawk. One of the mostvisionary in a long succession of spacefantasists was someone whose job it wasto make it all real: Wernher von Braun,who collaborated with Walt Disney andthe American popular press during the1950s to show that humans would be not just walking on the Moon, but workingthere too, with habitations and vehiclesfor mining and exploration. 1 Von Braun’svisions combined the fantastic with the pragmatic: driving was second nature insuburbanizing post-World War IIAmerica. Lunar vehicles made it seem allthe more obvious to the viewers of Disney and the readers of Collier’sWeekly and  Popular Science that it wasnot a question of if we would live anddrive on the Moon. It was only a questionof when. Nevertheless, the driving partalmost never happened. The idea of theLRVwas nearly sacrificed as the Apollo program evolved under time and money pressures during the 1960s. Those threeextraordinary cars that we can see onceagain on the lunar dust speak of extraor-dinary events on Earth, and of remark-able people, journeys, and changes herethat helped take us from here to there. Ferenc Pavlics The principal designer of the Lunar Roving Vehicle was Ferenc Pavlics. Hestill lives in the home he and his wife built overlooking the Pacific in SantaBarbara, California, during the timewhen the idea of a moon car stopped being fantasy. Text in italics that followsis taken from an interview by the author with Mr. Pavlics on 25 September 2010.  I was born in Balozsameggyes, a small village in the western part of  Hungary, on February 3, 1928. My par-ents were both teachers. My mother taught me in the early grades of elemen-tary school, and my father took myinstruction over in the later grades. For high school, I commuted to the Faludi Ferenc Gymnasium in Szombathely, theclosest city to our village, about 20 milesaway by train. At the beginning, I wasinterested in chemistry, but one of myexperiments at home didn’t work out—it exploded and my little sister got theexperiment all over her dress—so I  switched to mechanical engineering. I had excellent teachers in physics and mathematics and that’s what gave me theimpetus to go in a technical direction. I  graduated in 1946. From there I applied to the Technical University of Budapest and graduated as mechanical engineer in1950. Immediately I got a job as a designengineer at the Gepipari Tervezo Intezet (Machine Industry Design Institute), a fairly large government-run organiza-tion. I was designing machine tools and equipment for factories, setting up new factories and rebuilding old ones; therewas plenty to do in Hungary at the time. At the same time, I was assistant profes- sor at the Technical University of  Budapest, where I was teaching machine F EATURE The  L aw  o f  t he  S tronger Ferenc Pavlics and the Lunar Rover Ferenc Pavlics in his Santa Barbara,California home. Credit: David Clow  tool design for the evening courses. I worked for six years in Budapest. I had an apartment, and career-wise,things were going very well. One big complaint among all the technical peoplethere, though, was that we were com- pletely isolated from the world. Therewas no possibility of traveling outside thecountry to attend a conference or submit a paper or anything, not even as atourist. The technical literature from theWest was restricted. We could only read  Russian technical literature. That was abig complaint from the technical people. 1956 “Going very well” turned upside-down for Pavlics and the rest of Hungaryon 23 October 1956. It was three and ahalf years after the death of Josef Stalin,and in the midst of the “NikitaKhrushchev Thaw” of that year,Hungary’s frustrations at the isolationand repression that came with member-ship in the Warsaw Pact boiled over intoopen demonstrations. Students fromBudapest’s Building IndustryTechnological University marchedthrough the capital to theHungarian parliament withdemands for the immediateevacuation of the Soviet Union,withdrawal from the WarsawPact, a freely elected govern-ment and the dismissal of Soviet apparatchiks ; and noth-ing less than a “complete reor-ganization of Hungary’s eco-nomic life.” 2 Students weredetained. Gunfire broke out.The revolt spread across allHungary with astonishingspeed. In the first few days of revolution, a new governmentwas formed; Cardinal József Mindszenty, the anti-Stalinisthead of the Roman CatholicChurch in Hungary, was res-cued by the rebels; Moscow’stroops left Budapest andretreated to the countryside;and the revolt appeared to havesucceeded. Hungarians cele- brated until Moscow invadedagain massively with tanks and planes on 4 November. By the10th, the Hungarian Revolutionwas crushed. 3 The uprising against the commu-nist regime started in October 1956.Students from the Technical Universitycame up with demands and tried tobroadcast them on the radio when the shooting started. I was not active in the fighting, since I was already working at the time. My participation was setting upa kind of council at the institute for con-tinuing the management of the opera-tions, since all the communist managersdisappeared.Under the communist system, the police kept a secret dossier on everybody. People wanted to look into what waswritten about them. We got into thedossiers and distributed them to every-one. I still have mine! The communistsinvestigated my family, my relatives; mydossier said that that my parents wereteachers, not proletariat, and that I wasnot “good material” for membership inthe Communist Party.  At the beginning it appeared that the revolution succeeded. The Soviets sent their troops into the streets withtanks, but these troops had been in Hungary for years, and they were friend-ly with the Hungarians. When theyappeared on the streets, they were greet-ed and welcomed. People climbed on thetanks without fear. The Soviets didn’t know how to respond. Their tanks in Budapest paraded through the streetscarrying Hungarian students waving  flags. People didn’t view this as a hostileconfrontation. It didn’t seem at first that the Russians were going to crack downheavily. Moscow finally saw that thetroops they had in Hungary were useless for that purpose. They withdrew thosetroops, and to the revolutionaries it  seemed like the Russians were conceding the victory. We were all rejoicing. We organ-ized the new government and started out like a free country. That lasted only 10days. Then the Russians sent in fresh newtroops, and then they just shot the city to pieces. Twenty thousand people died. Kids, little children…machine-gunned inthe streets. One of my brothers was studying to be a priest. During the revo-lution, he distributed leaflets against thecommunist regime. He also participated in freeing Cardinal Mindszenty from prison. After the revolution was broken,he was put in jail, where he spent two years. It was obvious after that the revo-lution was broken that it was advisable for me to leave, and in November I decid-ed to escape. “We Might Have Crossed Paths” Years later and under different cir-cumstances, Ferenc Pavlics and David R.Scott would meet. Figuratively, theynearly did as Hungary was over-whelmed. Having graduated fifth in his classof 1954 at West Point, Scott could pick his service. He chose the Air Force because he wanted to fly jets. He was sta-tioned at the 32nd Fighter Day Squadronat Soesterberg Air Base (RNAF), in The Netherlands, during the revolution.“Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest inOctober 1956,” he said, “and we suitedup for war. We really thought the U.S.would defend the Hungarian freedomfighters, since here was a group of peoplefinally trying to break out of  Q U E S T 18:1 20118 The LRV tire showing the woven pianowire and titanium chevron treads. Credit:David Clow  Q U E S T 18:1 20119 Communism,” Scott later wrote. “Therethey were down on the streets, fighting.We thought the U.S. would support themthe way the U.S. had been saying itwould. But it did not.” 4 Scott’s unitswere on high alert: “The whole squadroncould be airborne and in combat withinan hour.” The most likely area of engage-ment was over Czechoslovakia, so Scottwas armed with Czech maps and curren-cy, and carrying a Beretta pistol and“every bullet we could get our hands on,”that he, like his squadron mates, had bought himself, because they weren’tissued side arms. “We were ready to go,”he remembers, “but the big boys called itoff.” Reminded of Pavlics’escape on theground, Scott said, “We might havecrossed paths.” 5 Pavlics’path was far below Scott’s,and no less dangerous.  I was lucky; I’d grown up in thewestern part of the country, 20 miles fromthe Austrian border, and my parents still lived there. One of my sisters lived in avillage just three miles from Austria. Her husband was a doctor. I left Budapest with my wife. We took a train to about 30miles from the border. You needed a spe-cial permit to enter that border zone, sowe got off the train at night, and wewalked through the countryside avoiding villages. We finally approached my sis-ter’s village.  My brother-in-law knew the peoplein the village, and knew that the butcher  sent out meat every other day to theSoviet border patrol. He arranged it that  for one of these deliveries my wife and I  got on this butcher’s horse-drawn cart along with a Hungarian soldier, a friend of the butcher, and the soldier took us tothe Austrian border and showed us howto get across.  It was three miles’ride to get there,and on the way there were patrols and checkpoints that stopped the carriageand required papers. I had mybrother–in-law’s documents, and my wifehad my sister’s papers. I was to tell themthat I’m a doctor going to the village totreat someone, and my wife is going toassist me. At this checkpoint a Soviet offi-cer was training a new group of soldiers, showing them how to properly check thedocuments for the correct stamps and dates and so on. He was so focused on our documentsthat he didn’t evenlook at me. Therewas a photo of mybrother-in-law onthe papers, and it would have been plain that I wasn’t that person in the photo, but the offi-cer didn’t check.They let my wifeand me gothrough to the vil-lage.We went toa house on the border at the edge of acleared and demined no-man’s land. The Hungarian soldier told us when the sen-tries with dogs would come. We could seethe lights of the Austrian village in thedistance. There was a 10-minute opening to cross. It was raining, muddy, dark; I was carrying a briefcase with some papers. We had nothing else. I gave all my Hungarian money to the soldier, and we started across.On the Austrian side, the villagerswere prepared for refugees. They con-verted a school to a temporary collectioncenter. The police met us there and debriefed us. My wife and I spent thenight there. The next morning they bused us all to a larger camp where we spent about three months. We applied for visas. I spoke German and applied for a West German visa. Someone came out to inter-view people and offered me a job in Bremerhaven on the Baltic Sea. They told us they’d take care of the paperwork. Wewaited and waited, and there was no wayto follow up, so we needed a Plan B. Wewent to Vienna and lined up at the American Embassy for two days. It took us two days to get in! The line went around the entire block.  After the revolution collapsed, wehad expected the West, especially theUnited States, to help us. On the radio, Radio Free Europe, Voice of America,they were telling us to hang on, help wascoming, and of course, nothing hap- pened. At the same time there was theSuez Canal situation, and Eisenhower had bigger problems, so we were kind of abandoned. But the West did donate and help—they took in 200,000 people, pri-vate citizens, government agencies, and  private agencies providing food and clothing. We were shown good care and  people were very nice. Every place therefugee trains stopped, people were therewith food, drink. We were heroes at thetime for daring to rise up against thecommunist regime. Finally, we got into the Americanembassy. We filled out the application,and they told us to go back to the campand wait. It turned out that we heard onthe same day that we were admitted byboth the Germans and the Americans; so,big decision about where to go. I told mywife, I have a job offer in Germany. I don’t speak a word of English, and I don’t have anybody in America; logically thedecision is Germany. My wife said, “I don’t want to stay in Europe. I’ve had enough of wars and revolution. Let’s get out of here.” We compromised. Since the American ship that would take us to theUnited States left from Bremerhaven,where the job offer was, I said, let’s takethe train to Bremerhaven as though we’re going to America. If we like Bremerhaventhen we’ll stay there; if we don’t like it,we’ll go to the U.S. That was in mid- February. The day the train arrived in Bremerhaven, it was lousy, overcast,cold, rainy; an ugly industrial city. We A close-up of the tire exterior. Credit:David Clow  agreed, we’ll take the ship and take our chances in the U.S.We finally boarded USATGeneral  Nelson M. Walker, a big recommissioned World War II troop carrier built to trans- port 4,000 people. They separated menand women. Bunks were stacked in fours.We spent a couple of days in Bremerhaven and then left. They fed usthe standard Navy rations, and after months of eating in the refugee camps, it was fantastic. Heaven! People went for  seconds. The people in charge had toannounce they’d issue meal ticketsbecause they were running out of food. The voyage was two weeks long inthe North Atlantic. Seasickness was terri-ble all over the ship. In the meantime,aboard ship, they started processing us.They were assessing who people were interms of skills and education, but also probing about your background. It wasn’t easy—were you a communist? Are you a spy? It was a fairly extensive set of inter-views. But I landed in the United Stateswith a Social Security card; essentially I had legal status here and was ready towork. We disembarked in New York and were taken to Camp Kilmer, a reactivat-ed military base in New Jersey. Thirty-eight thousand people were admitted there. They modified the barracks to give people a little privacy, and so we started our lives in the U.S. there. They wanted anyone who could to move through asquickly as possible to make room for thenext ones—get a job, go to relatives,make room. I was extremely lucky in thisrespect. Camp Kilmer, Detroit, and GM Pavlics’luck wasn’t his alone. The Lunar Rovers never got callsigns the way the Command Module andthe Lunar Modules did,  Falcon , Orion ,and Challenger  ; each a name reflectingthe traditions of the military and the spir-it of exploration. The rovers’namesmight have been  Fortuna or Serendipity ,reflecting the coincidences that wovetogether in the lives of people, such asFerenc Pavlics, to make them possible.The next timely break happened in CampKilmer.Mieczyslaw Gregory Bekker’s personal history was not greatly unlikethat of Ferenc Pavlics. Bekker was bornin 1905, in Strzyzów, near Hrubieszow,Poland, and graduated from WarsawTechnical University in 1929. He workedfor the Polish Ministry of MilitaryAffairs, doing pioneering research off-road traction for tracked vehicles. TheGerman invasion of Poland caused theretreat of his group to Romania and then,in 1939, to France, where in 1942 thegovernment of Canada offered him achance to move to Ottawa. After 13 yearsin the Canadian army, he retired and in1956 moved to the United States.Bekker’s book, Theory of Land  Locomotion: The Mechanics of Vehicle Mobility , published in 1956, was a fore-runner of engineering in off-road vehi-cles that would help lead in the develop-ment of their ultimate expressions. 6 In1956, Mieczyslaw Bekker was huntingfor talent.  Right around that time, Dr. Bekker,my future boss, was given the task of set-ting up a research laboratory to investi- gate soil-vehicle relationships for General Motors. GM wanted govern-ment work, research and development for off-road vehicles, tanks, agricultural machinery, and the military. They set upthe GM Defense Research Laboratoryand Dr. Bekker’s section was to investi- gate off-road vehicle mobility. He could not find American engineers for this. Heheard on the radio that refugees werearriving at Camp Kilmer, including engi-neers. He was Polish himself and knewthe quality of the training in eastern Europe. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences was calling on industry to tryand give jobs to refugees, and so Dr. Bekker came to the camp. Less than aweek after my wife and I arrived, Bekker  Q U E S T 18:1 201110 Ferenc Pavlics’ srcinal 1/6 scale Lunar Roving Vehicle model which he drove acrossthe floor of Dr. Wernher von Braun’s Huntsville Office.Credit: David Clow  Q U E S T 18:1 201111 interviewed five Hungarian engineersand hired all five of us. We accepted, of course, and  Bekker told us to come to Detroit. At therefugee camp, I was given a train ticket and five bucks. They took me to the train station in New York, and—now you’re on your own! I didn’t speak a word of  English. I’d started learning on the ship, just looking at the dictionary, but it wasnothing really. My wife stayed in thecamp, where she’d be safe until I got set-tled and got my first paycheck. I went alone to Detroit. I had no relatives in theUnited States who could sponsor me. Myofficial sponsor was an organization inthe Catholic Church, working throughthe parishes in Detroit. APolish couple from that organization met me with myname on a sign. The Hungarians had taken care of many Polish refugees whenGerman invaded Poland, and so theywere happy to give something back. Theytook me in. We talked in mime and signlanguage because we didn’t speak eachother’s languages. I stayed with them for a good month or so. They took me towork, picked me up, fed me. I finally got my first paycheck and I could rent a little place and I brought my wife in and start-ed life in Detroit. In this new facility, the Land  Locomotion Laboratory, we Hungarianswere in the majority. One of us spoke rea- sonably good English and my boss, Dr. Bekker, spoke German and he and I com-municated that way. I was working as adraftsman at the beginning, designing test equipment for the laboratory. Wetook English for Foreign Students classesin Detroit at Wayne State University and  picked up enough English—it’s amazing how much you can pick up in threemonths if you must. Then we could com-municate and I got working as an engi-neer doing testing and designing test equipment and so on. My wife and I spent three and a half years in Detroit. My two sons were born there.  In 1960, GM decided that the Defense Research Laboratories would bemoved to Santa Barbara because one of the departments was supporting the U.S. Navy and investigating acoustic detec-tion of submarines, and they needed access to deep water. Santa Barbaraoffers deep-sea access in the Santa Barbara Channel and south off theChannel Islands. In those days, GM wasrich and happy and fat and very gener-ous. They even sent me and my wife out  for one week; they put us up in the best hotel in Santa Barbara to let us decide if we’d accept the transfer. It took us fiveminutes. So we moved here and set up thenew Land Locomotion Laboratory and continued our mobility research. Weexpanded the lab to 1,200 people here inGoleta, California. Santa Barbara The whole world was exploring. In1960, two aquanauts dove 10,916 metersdown in the Mariana Trench in the Trieste , the first humans to reach thereach the lowest spot on Earth. 7 The USS Triton accomplished the first submergedcircumnavigation of the globe. 8 President Dwight Eisenhower formallydedicated the Marshall Space FlightCenter in Huntsville, Alabama, asRichard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedycampaigned to become his successor. 9  NASAhad selected its first group of mento fly in space and was rigorously testing boosters and spacecraft in preparation for launch to be first, guessing that the SovietUnion was doing precisely the samethings. The Cold War was at its coldest: aMiG-15 downed an Air ForceStratofortress over the Barents Sea withfour Air Force officers killed and twoimprisoned. In Moscow, U-2 pilotFrancis Gary Powers was sentenced to 10years in prison for espionage.Communists seized Cuba.The Moon was an obvious ColdWar prize, and “As soon as human beingshave established a foothold on theMoon,” wrote longtime pioneer Hermann Oberth, “and this even is not asfar in the future as some still prefer to believe—they will need a vehicle inorder to make a systematic exploration of the Moon.” Oberth’s book, The MoonCar  , repeated this message in 1959, nodoubt with the Soviet Union andAmerican paying equal attention. “Of course they could walk,” he wrote, “andin the beginning it will not be necessaryto make long trips. But when the imme-diate neighborhood of the first base has been explored, the time will come to pro-ceed to more distant objects.” 10 Withspace a new military front, von Braun’s plans for an ambitious American pres-ence on the lunar surface seemed not fan-tastic, but credible, and moreover, neces-sary. Investigation into speculative lunar vehicles accelerated even before it wasconfirmed just what sort of surface thosevehicles would ride on, or even in. GMDefense Research Laboratories(GMDRL) was just one among many pri-vate entities investigating lunar vehicles.Companies such as Grumman, Northrop,and Boeing, already involved in lunar spacecraft design, created speculativedesigns on lunar surface vehicles of allmanner—one-person, two-person, longtraverse, short-hop, rolling RV-sizedhabitations that could carry multiple crewand operate autonomously for weeks at atime, and even a rocket-belt idea (thisnever made it as a flight item, but it didend up flying Sean Connery in Thunderball  .) 11  Not surprisingly, GeneralMotors, one of the most powerful compa-nies in history as the space race gainedmomentum, wanted in. Surface trans- portation, after all, was GM’s métier. Such companies also recognized thefinancial opportunity in creating such ahigh profile, prestigious vehicle: Oberthhimself speculated that the “Moon car”might cost as much as $100,000. 12 In fact, a great deal more moneythan that was already on the table: whilemillions of visitors experienced theresults of the von Braun/Disney collabo-ration, and around the time when SovietPremier Nikita Khrushchev was denied permission to visit Disneyland himself due to security concerns, von Braun wassecretly briefing the U.S. Army on itsown Tomorrowland:  Project Horizon , a1959 proposal for nothing less than “amanned military outpost on the Moon.”Said the classified report, “The lunar out- post is required to develop and protect potential United States interests on theMoon; to develop techniques in Moon- based surveillance of the earth and space,in communications relay, and in opera-tions on the surface of the Moon; to serveas a base for exploration of the Moon, for further exploration into space and for 
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