NASA's new moon rover looks like it's been on TV's "Pimp My Ride."
While the Apollo-era vehicle that first landed on the moon in 1971 resembled a rickety dune buggy, NASA's 21st Century rover plans look like a luxury lunar RV.
There may be no more open-air lunar drives clad in bulky spacesuits for astronauts. Instead, future moon travelers can ride in style in an enclosed cabin complete with sleeping bunks for long rides. Bubble-shaped windows will provide a panoramic view.
The new vehicle, currently being designed by NASA as part of its Constellation program to revisit the moon by 2020, is called the Lunar Electric Rover (LER). It rides atop a Chariot chassis, which astronauts can also drive separately for use as a lunar truck.
"Certainly it's much more sophisticated, more capable and much more durable," said Frank Peri, director of NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia, comparing the LER to the Apollo rovers.
While developing this new souped-up moon buggy, NASA engineers were mindful of some of the pitfalls of the earlier Apollo versions.
"We did our homework and looked back and took that as a starting point," Peri told SPACE.com. "But we also took a lot of lessons from the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity."
On Monday, NASA will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing on July 20, 1969. The first moon rover driven by astronauts, however, did not arrive until the Apollo 15 mission two years later.
Smooth ride ... on the moon
While the old rovers did an admirable job of transporting the Apollo astronauts around for short distances, they didn't exactly do it in style and comfort.
"It was a pretty rough ride," Peri said. "It was pretty limited in its suspension and ability to handle rough terrain."
The LER should be able to navigate the moon's hills and craters with ease, and can even drive forward, backward and sideways thanks to rotating wheels.
Another major advance is the pressurized cabin, which is enclosed with air inside so the astronauts can ride and work comfortably without their bulky suits on.
If the astronauts do need to venture outside their van, they can easily slip into space suits attached to suitports at the back of the rover.
"That changes the whole realm of exploration because you can be in a shirtsleeve environment and then if you see something interesting you can go out and get in your suit in about 10 minutes — it's a game changer," said John Olson, director of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Integration Office.
A Moonbase on wheels
Inside the LER, comfy chairs easily convert into beds for sleeping, and there are even bathroom and shower facilities onboard. All these amenities are designed to let future moon explorers travel abroad for extended periods, even weeks at a time. In contrast, the Apollo rover sojourns never lasted more than four and a half hours.
Besides having more features, the new rovers should be much more durable than past models.
Where the old rovers were made for one-time-use (after their batteries ran out they were done), the new class will have rechargeable lithium ion batteries similar to those in modern hybrid cars like Toyota's Prius.
"When we went to the moon for the first time it was really kind of like a camping trip," Peri said. "We didn't care if things broke so long as we could make it back. This is going to be a trip to stay."
In fact, the prototypes being designed now for the moon are also intended to serve as the basic transportation model for future manned missions to Mars.