Crowds who line the downtown streets of Solvang for the 2018 Fourth of July Parade will get to see a piece of America’s history few people have seen — along with the man who built it.
R.A. “Putty” Mills, 95, of Santa Ynez, will sit atop the training model of the Lunar Roving Vehicle he built as it’s towed along the parade route with a real astronaut’s spacesuit, sans astronaut, seated beside him.
The LRV, popularly dubbed the Moon Buggy as a word play on dune buggy, will ride atop a trailer pulled by Santa Ynez resident Brian Schultz's red Jeep.
“It will be one off-road vehicle towing the ultimate off-road vehicle,” Schultz said, as Mills and Don Mcfadyen stood nearby.
“This one would still run, but Putty didn’t think the batteries would last through the parade,” said Mcfadyen, of Solvang, who came up with the parade entry idea and, with wife Sally, is putting together the float.
“He lives here in Santa Ynez,” Mcfadyen explained. “This (vehicle) is historical. So I thought, ‘Let’s put it in the parade and show it off.’”
Although Mills has displayed his LRV for small groups in the Santa Ynez Valley, it is perhaps appropriate that it makes its big public debut in Wednesday’s parade.
This year’s theme is “Our Exceptional Country,” and few can deny that landing men on the moon — and bringing them back alive — was an exceptional achievement, as was Mills’ construction of the LRV training model.
Mills built the training model from scratch, following the design drawings supplied by Boeing, to help the astronauts of Apollo 15, 16 and 17 learn how to handle an LRV and get in some practice laps before actually having to drive one on the surface of the moon.
“You’re always in for a surprise, no matter how well you plan things,” Mills said, explaining why the astronauts spent weeks driving the trainer in the Arizona desert. “They needed to know what to expect before they got on a Rover on the moon.”
After all, when you’re off-roading more than 230,000 miles from home, you can’t really call AAA for assistance.
One in 1,500
Mills got the job building the LRV trainer because he had two big advantages: He had practical vehicle engineering experience and off-road racing experience.
“In Santa Barbara, they started off-road racing in 1924,” Mills said, recalling races from Goleta to Gibraltar Dam.
When World War II broke out, Mills went through fighter training school, but before he could graduate as a second lieutenant, the Army canceled the battalion he was to be assigned to and begain training him first on the 105 mm howitzer and later the 155 mm howitzer.
“Then someone, with the stroke of a pen, put me in (Gen. George) Patton’s 3rd Army,” Mills said.
As a tech fourth grade, he arrived to serve as a “troubleshooter” on Patton’s Sherman tanks — just in time for the bloody Battle of the Bulge.
When Hitler’s Nazi Germany was finally crushed six months later, Mills was sent to the Pacific Theater, where he served until the Japanese surrendered.
Discharged by President Harry S. Truman, he returned to off-roading and in the 1960s raced in the Baja 500 and 1,000.
He was working for the U.S. Department of the Interior when, just before Apollo 11 made the first moon landing, NASA put out a request for proposals to design and build the Lunar Roving Vehicle that would allow astronauts to extend their moon explorations.
Boeing, Bendix, Grumman and Chrysler submitted proposals.
“Everyone all over the country had their own versions of the Rover,” Mills said, adding Boeing was the only one that didn’t build a model but submitted drawings.
Boeing won the prime contract, with General Motors Defense Research Laboratories in Santa Barbara picked to furnish the wheels, motors and suspension.
But Boeing and NASA would need more than just four flight models. They also needed a model for human factors design, one to engineer subsystems, two for testing the deployment mechanism, the trainer for driving instruction and practice, a model to test the effect of its extra mass on the LEM, a vibration unit to test its reaction to launch stresses and one to test all the subsystems.
Mills said 1,500 people applied to build the training unit. That number was eventually whittled down to six and then to one: Mills.
When he asked for the Moon Buggy specs, he was taken to the Boeing plant in Huntsville and handed the drawings. Using those, he drew up his own plans.
Building from scratch
“We built two (trainers), one for the primary crew and one for the backup crew,” Mills said.
All the switches on the LRV were copied from the Lunar Excursion Module’s flight controls, he said.
Even the T-handled joystick used to drive it was the same as the one the astronauts used to pilot the LEM, so the skills for controlling one would more easily translate to controlling the other.
“They were built from the dimensions supplied by Boeing,” Mills said. “If (the astronauts) sat in this one with a bag on their head, they wouldn’t know which (Moon Buggy) they were in.”
Mills’ training LRV not only matched Boeing’s dimensions and designs, but it was also delivered ahead of schedule and way under budget.
“We were given 90 days (to build it),” he said. “We had it done in 89 days.”
Mills said he had two assistants helping with the welding, but he still put in long hours, working until 2 or 3 a.m., to meet the deadline.
Meanwhile, he said, eight engineers worked on the flight models.
“One would do the seat, one would do something else,” he said. “But this was all new. The electronics were new, everything else was new. A lot of guys didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”
Mills said Boeing put the cost to build the flight LRVs at $10 million each — he said Boeing’s LRV speedometers alone cost $1 million — and the trainer models at just under $1 million each.
“I built this model for $1,900,” Mills said, noting he built the trainer’s speedometer for $12. “They said, ‘Oh, we can’t tell (NASA) that!’ They said, ‘We’ll tell them you built it for $20,000. They would buy that.’”
Mills did it by fabricating almost everything himself except the suspension parts, which came from England’s small Morris Minor car, and the hubs, wheels and tires, which he took from America’s iconic Jeep.
“I drove Jeeps all over the Philippines, so I was familiar with those,” Mills said.
He also made the boxed frame from 1020 carbon steel, “the cheapest steel you could buy.”
The flight Moon Buggies had titanium frames and silver-zinc parts and rode on “tires” made of wire mesh covered with strips of titanium. They also folded up to be stowed aboard the LEM.
So while Mills’ training models weren’t identical to the flight models, they were close enough.
After tooling around the desert and Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, the astronauts stepped right into the LRVs on the moon without a hitch.
Well, almost. Turned out a couple of them wished they could call AAA but had to make do with duct tape.
During the Apollo 16 mission, astronaut John Young caught his suit on a rear fender extension and broke it off. The lunar dust subsequently thrown up by the uncovered wheel literally coated Young, astronaut Charles Duke and the LRV.
Eugene Cernan accidentally broke a fender off with a hammer during the Apollo 17 mission, which Mills said prompted fellow astronaut Harrison Schmitt to comment, “Where’s Putty when you need him?”
One of the four flight Moon Buggies never made it to the lunar surface. It was cannibalized for parts after the Apollo program was canceled.
The three that went to the moon never came home. All are still sitting on the lunar dust, relics of America’s early days of space exploration.
History on hold
Mills said when the Apollo program ended, everyone was scrambling to get away to Denver to be the first in line for the best Department of the Interior jobs.
“They were just dumping everything,” he said. “They were leaving so fast, it was like a vacuum there.”
One of the trainer LRVs had been disassembled and was on its way to the scrap heap. Being a chronic collector, Mills couldn’t let that happen, so he gathered up all the parts and took them with him.
“They didn’t care,” Mills said. “They just wanted everything gone.”
He also got his hands on an astronaut’s suit — the one that will sit next to him in Wednesday’s parade.
“My wife (Carol) said I have to get white gloves and white shoes for it,” Mills said. “I think I can get some at a paint store.”
He also got one of the 30 original wire mesh wheels, without the titanium strips, that will be strapped to the back of his Moon Buggy for the parade.
Over the years, Mills’ LRV remained in pieces, eventually stored in his Santa Ynez garage.
But in 2015 when it appeared a space museum would be included in the California Space Center proposed for Lompoc, he decided that would be a good place for the LRV to spend the rest of its days.
The other one he built was already on display at the Space Center in Houston.
So Mills began reassembling the LRV, and today it looks almost as new as it did when it was first delivered to the Arizona desert.
Since the deal for the California Space Center fell apart, Mills has shown the LRV to a few local groups.
But ultimately he would like to see it on permanent display in an appropriate place to pay tribute to America’s space program — and perhaps one man’s ingenuity to do a job faster and cheaper.