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Apollo Engineer Restores Moon Rover Trainer

Rover
Rutledge Alexander Mills, known as "Putty," built two lunar rover simulators for astronaut training during the Apollo program. He rescued one of them that was headed for the trash at the end of the program and is restoring it at his home in Santa Ynez, Calif. John Brecher / NBC News

That's one giant moon buggy for a retired Apollo veteran: Rutledge Alexander "Putty" Mills worked as chief of vehicles for Manned Lunar Expedition Studies in the Apollo program during the 1960s and 70s, and now he's restoring a lunar rover test vehicle at his home in Santa Ynez, California.

NASA paid $41 million for four moon rovers, three of which made it to the moon. Designed for lunar gravity, they'd be crushed if driven on Earth. Still, astronauts had to practice, so Mills made two training versions of the rovers for less than $2,000 each, using off-the-shelf parts. Using copies of the rover’s drawings, Mills hand-built his models to precisely the same dimensions, though they weighed twice as much as the flight-ready versions.

Mills helped train astronauts including Dave Scott, Jim Irwin, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, with the Arizona desert substituting for the moon. The first lunar rover touched down on the moon 43 years ago with Apollo 15, on July 30, 1971. The last one was left behind by Apollo 17 in December 1972. According to Mills, when Cernan broke a fender on Apollo 17's rover, Schmitt said, "Where's Putty when you need him?"

At the end of the Apollo program, Mills found the shell of a rover model headed for the dump at Flagstaff, Arizona, and got permission from the city manager to salvage it along with some spare parts. Since then he’s rebuilt the rover as a home project. When it's finished, Mills hopes to donate it to a museum.

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Mills holds a surplus lunar rover wheel designed to fly to the moon that he rescued from trash at the end of the Apollo program. John Brecher / NBC News