Hidden in the bowels of a nondescript Northgate building in Bellevue, Mike Lombardi sits in a creaky, midcentury conference room chair with burnt orange upholstery. He is surrounded by a treasure trove of the Boeing Company’s historical artifacts — handwritten letters, models of concept planes, a leather flight helmet, and a pair of Bill Boeing’s flight underwear sit among the cache.
He turns page after page of glossy black-and-white photographs interspersed with schematics in a worn, dusty binder. “Here’s some initial drawings. Here’s how they folded it up, which was pretty cool. And some technical specs here,” the Boeing Company historian said, punctuating each sentence with a turn of the page.
Another slow, purposeful flick of his wrist, and there it was in all its glory: Boeing’s Lunar Rover Vehicle (LRV). Designed for moon exploration, the 462-pound “moon buggy” was arguably the most innovative creation to come out of Boeing’s Kent Space Center from its mid-1960s dedication through the present.
“The Lunar Rover was really cool,” Lombardi marveled. “Here’s this dune buggy that they sent to the moon, but even more than that, it really is one of the great engineering achievements.”
What made the LRV so revolutionary? For a vehicle that was conceived, designed, and built in a span of just 17 months, beginning in 1969, the LRV is likely one of the first pioneering electric vehicles in history.
“It was powered with lithium batteries; if you fly up (to the moon) with a brand-new battery, you could probably take (one of them) for a spin,” Lombardi laughed.
Moreover, the LRV, which had a range of 57 miles, was able to carry a payload four times greater than its own weight and featured independent four-wheel drive (a new concept at that time) as well as woven piano-wire mesh wheels designed to navigate the dusty lunar surface.
Ultimately, three LRVs were made and sent to the moon during Apollo missions 15, 16, and 17.
“At the beginning of the Apollo program, there was this discussion,” Lombardi explained. “(They asked,) ‘Are we going to study the moon or are we just going to fly there and just say we did it?’ The scientists said, ‘If we’re going to go there, we’re going to study it.’ So NASA came up with the idea that the first couple of missions, these test pilots are going to fly them, you know, the guys with the right stuff — the Neil Armstrong-types — are going to fly to the moon, land on the moon, and show we can do it. Then these last three missions are going to be scientists.
“The lunar rover’s job was to help those scientist astronauts to travel farther across the moon and be able to study a greater area of lunar surface,” Lombardi continued.
Though the LRV is the most notable and lauded innovation to emerge from the super-secret Kent Space Center, many of NASA’s greatest triumphs were made possible by the talent right here in the South Sound.
There was Mariner 10, the robotic space probe that launched in 1973 and was designed to survey Mercury and Venus. And if you’ve never heard of the Inertial Upper Stage — a small booster that could launch satellites into upper orbit — you’ve likely heard what it helped launch: the Galileo and Magellan probes that were sent into deep space to study our solar system.
In an effort to develop sustainable technology, Boeing built the world’s first wind farm, at Goodnoe Hills in Eastern Washington, thanks, in part, to the center.
The hole in the ozone layer? That was discovered thanks to a satellite built in Kent. And the International Space Station? Yeah; that was worked on here, too.
“What is always surprising to me is how few people in the area know what we did there,” Lombardi said of the center’s contributions to space travel and exploration.
In fact, much speculation and many urban myths surrounded the center. Even Kent Mayor Dana Ralph, a fourth-generation Kent resident, recalls wondering what secrets could be found inside.
“Having grown up here, I can remember driving by there all the time and my dad telling me stories about how no one knows what is happening in that building and how there are secret tunnels,” Ralph said, noting that she and many of her peers were taught to drive in the center’s massive parking lot.
“To this day, Boeing has not fully released what happened at the Kent Space Center. There are all kinds of myths about it. Even the permitting — the city doesn’t know exactly what is there and what is underground and what they designed and what they tested. It’s all top secret,” Ralph continued.
The center’s innovations that Ralph does know about, however, fill her with tremendous pride, she said.
“I’m so proud,” she said, beaming. “There’s sort of this regionwide notion that Kent is this town that doesn’t really matter, and my goal in life is to explain to people why Kent matters, why we are important, and what has been done here. And the rover is a huge part of that story.”
It was for this reason that with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions looming in July 2019, Ralph wanted to do something big. A meeting between the city and Boeing was called, and the result was the decision to establish a historical landmark around the LRV on the moon.
“It really started out as an economic development tool, and for a lot of reasons it still is, but it’s also just a really perfect way to be proud of our history,” Ralph said.
Moreover, Ralph wanted to inspire the next generation of Kent innovators. “We really wanted to be able to show our kids (what is possible),” she said. “That’s sort of the end goal: How do you inspire the next generation to dream big and know that there are great opportunities out there for you, and you don’t have to travel far away; you can stay right here in Kent and do pretty amazing things.”
To further spark the interest of Kent’s rising generation, the city partnered with Boeing to create a kid-friendly model of the LRV to place in Kherson Park. Ralph hopes to have the model installed sometime in 2021.
Boeing isn’t the only space company in town: With the Jan. 6 ribbon-cutting of its new 236,000-square-foot headquarters in the Kent Valley, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has a substantial footprint in the Kent Valley. Between the two companies — and offshoot startups by former Boeing and Blue Origin employees — Ralph estimates 60 percent of space-related jobs in the state of Washington are based in her city.
“A company like Blue, it’s everything from the rocket scientists and the engineers to the machinists to office support — it’s a whole range of jobs,” Ralph said of Blue Origin’s employees, noting that kids don’t have to grow up to be rocket scientists in order to work in the space industry.
“We’ve got people from all over the world and the skill sets from all over the world, so kids have opportunities in everything we are doing.”
Ralph said she thinks there will be plenty to accomplish in the years ahead.
“If you listen to Jeff (Bezos) talk, the idea is that we are going to colonize the moon, protect the Earth, and then use that as the home base to go to Mars. It’s hard not to believe him,” she said. “This is going to be a reality. The next generation could very easily be heading to work from the moon.”
Boeing’s Lombardi was once one of those starry-eyed children growing up in Renton during the 1970s. He often still marvels over how the people of the South Sound made history.
“It’s our next-door neighbors,” he said. “(They) would get up and go to Boeing to work on this stuff. They were everyday people, and look at the amazing things that they did. That’s the story I think is so cool. Everyday people got together and did something amazing.”
Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) by the numbers
July 26, 1971
10 feet 2 inches
Width (to center of wheels):
Two 36-volt batteries powering four, 1/4-horsepower electric motors (one at each wheel)
Apollo 17’s LRV was damaged, and part of the wheel fender was broken off. To keep moon dust from kicking up at them, the astronauts had to improvise by attaching a map to the fender.