The Lunar Rover and Eduardo San Juan: Update from an LRV Designer

Update: See the response from NASA, with Eduardo San Juan’s actual MOLAB study.

Last February I posted a letter that I received from the supposed daughter of Eduardo San Juan, attempting to debunk my debunk of the urban legend concerning his inventorship of the lunar rover. Early last month I received a response from one Bruno A. Nikodemski, who says he was an electronics designer with GM on the lunar rover project:

I just ran across your article on the Eduardo San Juan myth that he designed the Lunar Rover. It is indeed a myth.

I am one of the original electronics designers of the actual LRV, primarily in the area of the motor-drive electronics, for the four-wheel electric drive system. My supervisors and managers, Bruce Velasco, Ferenc (Frank) Pavlics, and Sam Romano are still alive, and can readily contribute to the actual history of the LRV development. We just had a large reunion in Santa Barbara, for many of the Apollo and LRV and Titan participants, and there will soon be another reunion in Milwaukee.

The actual designer of the LRV concept was a previous land mobility traction expert, named Dr. M.G. Bekker. Bekker worked for the US Army, after he escaped from Hungary, following the 1950s revolutions. Bekker had previously published all sorts of papers on land and extraterrestrial mobility and traction, and his name is immortalized as a name for some of the basic test methods, which he invented. Pavlics was one of his protegés, and also later came over to the USA. These two person were eventually hired by General Motors, and worked at our facility in Goleta, California.

In the post 50s intervals, Army labs did all sorts of work in land and exotic mobility systems, and our GM site had its own “lunar surface” test track, and several rolling stations which replicated the desired dirt characteristics. Prior to going over to GM, Bekker published several books on land mobility, one under the auspices of the University of Michigan, which became a classic in the field. In this and other books, and several other papers, he expounded on several exotic mobility systems, including “floaters”, “screw-drives”, various articulated systems, and many extraterrestrial applications. Articulated vehicles were a very big thing back then, since they had better mobility than conventional vehicles. The subsequent NASA work in the late-50s through late-60s was mostly patterned on the MOLAB-like vehicles of that developmental era.

Eduardo San Juan undoubtedly had exposure to this developmental material during his stint at NASA, but Bekker had published this kind of material at least a decade before, if not earlier.

Our General Motors Defense Research Labs subsequent success in being awarded the real Lunar Rover development, with Boeing as the primary builder of the chassis and seat-pan section, and Garrett the steering, was entirely based on the previous knowledge and skill of Bekker and Pavlics. The airless-wheel, for example, had been developed and tested long before Eduardo San Juan had any entry into the NASA programs. The double-Ackerman steering, with its attendant in-wheel motors was completely unknown to San Juan, and the method by which it works to provide enhanced traction will not be known by him, since it is still a trade secret among the cognizant designers. The wheels share power under a special scheme, which is designed into the motor drive electronics. As such, the wheels work in unison, and if one loses traction, the others will compensate. There are many such design details which can be inspected and used to debunk his story. The QTU, one flight vehicle, and the 1G Trainers vehicles are still available, and all run if powered by the appropriate power sources. They can be used to verify any of our details.

If you need any more history about the actual design details of the Lunar Rover, please contact me back. I still have facsimiles of many of the original electronics diagrams, and much other collateral information. NASA doesn’t try to stifle many of these historical myths, since the myths often provide more publicity than the actual truth.

My younger son is presently doing a school project about how NASA “faked the moon landings.” This effort will serve to get more kids interested in NASA, more than anything that NASA itself is doing around here.

– Bruno A. Nikodemski

There you have it, from a rover designer himself, who worked directly on LRV systems which Eduardo San Juan claims to have created. This, combined with the various factual errors propagated in re-tellings of San Juan’s lunar rover story, should be another nail in the coffin of the Eduardo San Juan myth. Of course, I have no way of confirming Bruno’s story without a response from the MSFC History Office or a trip to Milwaukee to see the LRV team reunion for myself, but he has been quite insistent in subsequent email exchanges that he can provide bodily proof, and I believe it.

I kind of see why NASA doesn’t mind these hoaxes, since, as has been mentioned, they generate buzz which spawns further interest in space and science — there may be young Filipino engineers out there after all, inspired by the archetypal story of the lone, noble, Filipino underdog engineer whose undocumented, unappreciated efforts became a part of the Apollo moon shot, mythical though his achievement may have been. Sober truth must take precedence, however, and achievement is best inspired by a drive to discover truth, rather than by a well-propagated nationalistic falsehood.