The Early Lunar Shelter: Stay Just a Little Bit Longer

Garrett AiResearch Lunar Shelter

The Garrett Early Lunar Shelter, showing its roots in the LM Truck and, in turn, the LM that actually landed on the Moon. The tanks draped around it are hydrogen and oxygen for the fuel cells, shelter pressurization, and recharging the astronauts’ suits after EVA. Public Domain image via NASA from Early Lunar Shelter Design and Comparison Study, Volume IV. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A two-astronaut shelter/living quarters for use with the Apollo program once it had progressed to needing 30-day stays on the surface, studied in 1966-67 by Garrett AiResearch at NASA’s request. Variants for three astronauts and for a mobile version that could be hitched to a lunar rover were also examined.

Details: Certain big names show up repeatedly in conjunction with the American space program: North American Rockwell, Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed, and so on. Around the fringes, though are less familiar names such as Bendix and TRW. Another one of the latter was Garrett AiResearch, a mid-sized aerospace pioneer best known (at least as far as the space program goes) for designing and building the atmosphere controls for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.

In 1966, NASA commissioned Garrett to move beyond what they’d done to that point, and work on a  full-fledged, if tiny, Moon base. Dubbed the “Early Lunar Shelter” (ELS), the intention was to build it following the J-Class missions—what turned out to be Apollo 15 through 17. Having progressed from short surface stays like Apollo 11 to longer ones that had a lunar rover to work with, like Apollo 17, the next step was to be month-long stays and that required more than a single LM.

From the beginning, the Moon landings had been quite restricted in mass, as much of an LM was taken up with astronauts, the consumables they needed, and the fuel and engines needed to get them back to the CSM for the flight home to Earth. If you could forgo all of that with an automated lander, you could haul a lot more equipment to the Moon—to wit, 4.67 tonnes of it.

The fruit of this thinking was the LM/T, or Lunar Module Truck, which was for all intents and purposes a rocket-powered mule that would head to the Moon some time before its associated astronauts would start their journey in their own LM (called the LM Taxi in this context). Landing close to the LM/T, the astronauts could walk over, unload everything, and enjoy a huge quantity of equipment as compared to Aldrin and Armstrong.

There were any number of configurations for the LM/T, constrained only by the volume an LM occupied on top of a Saturn V and the limit to the mass it could safely land, but the Early Lunar Shelter was the answer to one particular question: “Suppose we devote the Truck’s volume entirely to living quarters for two astronauts and the scientific equipment they’d use. What would that be like?”

What Garrett came up with was a stubby cylinder, 8.1 feet in diameter and 16 feet long (2.5 meters by 4.9 meters) which rested on its side above the LM/T’s descent stage, looking not unlike contemporary bathyscaphes. It would be launched atop a Saturn V along with a crewed CSM, which would dock to a hatch on its upper side, then ferry it to the Moon after the usual Saturn IV-B trans-lunar injection. After reaching their destination, the CSM would disengage and return its crew to Earth, while the ELS would land automatically.

The shelter could sit on the Moon for as much as six months before its astronaut-dwellers arrived (thanks to another Saturn V/CSM combination), with a minimum seven days prior to their launch for checkout of the shelter. A SNAP-27 radiothermal generator would power the ELS until activation. Once aboard, the minimum time the astronauts would use it was assumed to be 14 days, with 50 days being the upper end of possibility. The first day days of the mission would be devoted to the astronauts activating the shelter for their use, unloading it, switching the shelter to running off fuel cells (which would also supply water) and transferring the RTG to their LM Taxi so their ride home could be deactivated but kept “alive” until it was needed at the end of the mission.

Interior layout of the Early Lunar Shelter

The interior layout of the ELS, same source as previous. One presumes the outer hatch was closed when the toilet was in use. Click for a larger view.

The interior of the shelter was to be divided into two main areas. One was a lunar EVA airlock taking up one end, the CSM hatch on top being used solely for docking with a CSM. It would have been big enough for two astronauts at the same time as well as storage of two hard space suits. The bulk of the shelter was 628 cubic feet (17.8 m3) of living space. Though about half of this would be taken up with supplies, bunks, and spacesuit storage, its shirt-sleeve environment compared well with a regular LM’s 4.5 cubic meters of habitable volume. Alternatively, as the Moon does supply gravity, the ELS can be sized another way: it would have had 68 square feet of floor space (6.3 square meters).

The arrangement of bunks/radiation refuge quarters in the ELS.

The spartan arrangement of bunks/radiation refuge quarters in the ELS. No Apollo astronaut was taller than 71 inches. Same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

The shelter was double-walled aluminum and fiberglass (the latter in the inside), with 58 mils (0.058 inches, or 0.15 cm) between them for meteoroid protection—the usual tactic, as invented by Fred Whipple. The other major danger entertained was radiation, and the aluminum walls couldn’t be made thick enough to sustain 500 rads (a hypothetical solar flare) without weight close to a half ton more than was otherwise necessary. Accordingly the study suggested putting the necessarily numerous  PLSS recharging canisters (for the life-support backpack worn while on the surface) stored in water filled sleeves around the bunk area located at the opposite end from the airlock. Altogether, they, the walls, and the bunk material made an acceptable, if awfully cramped, radiation refuge for everyone on-board.

One final, intriguing safety touch was the dual-purpose boom attached near the airlock. While primarily intended for unloading instruments or a rover, it would also have been used to get an incapacitated astronaut up next to the entrance to the shelter.

Arranged around and behind the shelter were four tanks: one compressed gaseous oxygen, one liquid oxygen, and two liquid hydrogen. These weren’t intended for use with the Truck’s landing engine—it had its own tankage—but rather for use by the astronauts and the fuel cells (and so, accordingly, their water). Garrett pinpointed the storage of LOX and LH2 for up to six months before the astronauts arrived as the main technical challenge facing the ELS.

Another issue was what atmosphere they would breathe: pure oxygen at 5.0 psia, or nitrogen/oxygen mix comparable to Earth. The former was desirable for mass reasons, and to keep the ELS as close in technology to the rest of the Apollo program as possible, but Garrett were concerned that there were no medical studies of a pure oxygen atmosphere for a long period of time; the 30-day maximum they note was apparently just an educated guess. They ended up punting the problem down the road as essentially an issue of how much they could keep the ELS from leaking; if that could be minimized, the problem was moot. Safety concerns weren’t mentioned at all, and in fact the final filing of Garrett’s study was on February 8th, 1967, not even two weeks after the Apollo 1 fire. After that the CSM would switch to a oxy-nitrogen atmosphere for launch, though the LM would stay with the low-pressure pure oxygen.

Mobile ELS variant, hitched to a notional rover.

The Mobile ELS variant, hitched to a notional rover. Same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

As well as being a shelter, the ELS would have been a miniature scientific outpost. It would be equipped with a drill capable of getting 100 feet down into the Moon’s crust, carry explosive charges for seismic readings, and had three remote instrument stations that would be deployed far from the landing site thanks to the extended EVA capability the shelter would provide. All told, the shelter would come with 3470 pounds (1.57 tonnes) of science gear, while the shelter itself was a remarkably light 985 pounds (447 kg). Add in the expendables and altogether it could be successfully landed on the Moon by the LM/T with a mere pound and a half to spare. Let it not be said that they didn’t squeeze all the juice out of this one.

If the project had gone ahead, Garrett anticipated that the ELS would be operational in 1972. The study is silent on cost, apparently because the construction work was to be handed off to Grumman, and so it was their problem.

What happened to make it fail: It got caught up in the rapid ramping down of the Apollo program that started in 1968, not least the fact that Saturn V production was shut down and the rockets they had were all they were going to get.

By scrimping and saving (and cutting a couple of Moon landings) NASA managed to save Skylab, and eventually the detente-driven Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, but that was it. As any mission involving the Early Lunar Shelter was going to require two Saturn V launches it was an obvious target for a cut, taking up as it would two slots that could be used by two different, separate Moon missions. It was one of the first things to go, and did not make it out of 1968.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It’s interesting to compare the Early Lunar Shelter to the other Moon bases we’ve examined so far, Barmingrad and Project Horizon. Both were hugely ambitious and nowhere near happening in reality, while for this project the key word was early. A lot of people tend to conflate Moon bases with lunar colonies, or at least the next rank down of permanently inhabiting the Moon even if the personnel are swapped out periodically. What NASA put its finger on was that we’re not likely to make that big a leap all in one go. The first lunar bases are probably going to be temporary, just like the first space stations were before we worked our way up to Mir and the ISS.

On that basis it’s easy to get the ELS to fly, as it was a big part of the logical next step in lunar exploration (ignoring the elephant in the room that was automated exploration, mind you). With probably no more than some minor redesigning there could have been one on the Moon just a few years after when Garrett AiResearch pictured it: 1972.

As ugly as the post-1969 picture was for NASA’s funding, it’s not too much of stretch to see the three or four more necessary missions past Apollo 17 making it through the budget grinder and “Apollo ELS” flying sometime around late 1974 or early 1975. It’s a lot likelier than much of what NASA proposed post-Apollo 11, at least, if only because one mission like that would be as much or more of a punctuation mark at the end of the program as any other mission bar Apollo 11 itself.


Early Lunar Shelter Design and Comparison Study, Volume I and Volume IV, W.L. Burriss, N.E. Wood, and M.L. Hamilton. Garrett AiResearch. Los Angeles, California. 1967.

MOLAB/MOLEM/MOCOM/MOCAN: The Eagle Gets Around (Apollo Applications Program, Part II)


The MOLAB, heading away from the astronauts’ LEM on a 14-day mission. As well as this purpose-built version of the rover shown here, NASA considered three other versions that re-used other equipment being built for Apollo. Image from Lunar Mobility Systems Comparison and Evolution Study (MOBEV): Final Presentation Report. Click for a larger view.

What it was: Four proposals to deal with the same issue: once the lunar lander touched down, it was stuck there and its crew had to suit up and walk to anywhere they wanted to study. As the Apollo lunar base was getting up and running, one of these four ideas would be used to give astronauts a mobile laboratory with a “shirtsleeve” environment in which they could trundle around the surface of the Moon on jaunts to various interesting locations.

Details: We’ve previously discussed one suggestion for using Apollo hardware beyond its base purpose of getting people to the Moon and bringing them back. The Manned Venus Flyby was by far the most extreme option considered, but there were many other possibilities: NASA and its contractors put a lot of work into figuring out what else the various bits of Apollo hardware (with modification) could do.

The MOLAB was, as its name suggests, a mobile laboratory. The first Apollo missions relied entirely on legwork for getting around, and while Apollos 15 through 17 had the benefit of the lunar rover (LRV), it was far from perfect. If nothing else, mission duration was restricted by the fact that it had no life support—its passengers relied on their spacesuits for air and the like, and so missions could be no more than a few hours long.

Before budget pressures forced NASA to cut back to one Saturn V per mission, the plan was to support extended Apollo missions by sending a second lander (the LM Truck) carrying support equipment. Accordingly NASA was generous with weight—potentially up to 3860 kilograms was allowed—and came up with a plan for an entirely new piece of equipment, the MOLAB proper. After delivery to the Moon it would then be offloaded from the truck, set up, and then boarded by the astronauts and used while their LEM was put into hibernation. But aware of the eye of Congress on them even before the budget cuts started to hit, though, they also asked Bendix Corporation (builders of scientific packages for Apollo, and a company that had been studying lunar rovers and fliers for NASA since 1961) to look at three other possibilities for enclosed vehicles that the Truck could bring.


The LEM, repurposed as the crew cabin for a MOLAB. Image from Lunar Surface Mobility System Comparison and Evolution (MOBEV): Final Report. Click for a larger view.

The first was the MOLEM. The basic idea here was that the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) was primarily designed to give astronauts someplace to live while on the surface of the Moon, so why not just keep going with that idea? Though some redesign would be necessary even beyond the deletion of its ascent rocket and the addition of wheels, it would be cheaper than starting from scratch with a full MOLAB.

Carrying a crew of two, the MOLEM would have been able to drive for 400 kilometers and go up a 35° incline. This meant it would be going around craters and other rough terrain rather than over it, so Bendix felt this translated to an 80 kilometer radius for missions. With a roaring top speed of 16.7 kilometers per hour these travels could be spread out across two weeks, with another week in emergency supplies if they were needed. The air inside was to have been 100% oxygen at 0.34 atmospheres, a choice that at first places the Bendix report prior to the Apollo 1 fire (and it is, having been completed in November 1966) until one realizes that the real-world lunar modules used pure oxygen as well. It’s hard not to think that, given the extra payload capability supplied by the LM Truck, this would nevertheless have changed if any of the MOLABs had gone ahead.

Altogether the MOLEM would have rung in at 3516 kilograms, which was a point in its favour. Not only could the LM Truck carry it, there was even leftover room for other equipment.


An Apollo CM as the MOLAB. Image from same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

The next option was the MOCOM. This was a less-obvious possibility, being an Apollo Command Module (CM) with wheels attached. Unlike the LEM this piece of equipment was never designed to go anywhere other than orbit, but the thinking was it was also designed to support its own weight while on Earth, so in all it should be able to handle the lunar environment. The lack of air on the surface was the same as conditions in orbit, and the Moon’s 0.16 gravities would be a snap compared to Earth’s hefty pull.

This CM’s heat shield would be scrapped as useless, as would the various bits of instrumentation and attitude control rockets needed for flight. As the regular CM hatch proved to be badly placed for a lunar vehicle, an airlock would be added along with the wheels, drive train, and transmission. As it would use essentially the same powertrain as the MOLEM, it would have the same duration and trip length, while also carrying the same amount of cargo (320 kilograms). The major difference between the two would be in the amount of space the astronauts would have to move around in during their excursion: the MOLEM was smaller at 4.2 cubic meters in volume (compared to the MOCOM’s 6.2 cubic meters), and had less floor space (2.4 square meters as opposed to 4.1)—which meant that the MOLEM wouldn’t let the astronauts sit down while driving. Finally, while the MOCOM was slightly heavier at 3743 kilograms, it too would fit on the LM Truck.


A Boeing CAN — intended for a variety of uses on the lunar surface, but primarily a cargo container for the LM Truck — converted for use as a MOLAB. Image from same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

The final possibility was to use a CAN, a proposed piece of hardware—the Multipurpose Mission Module—from Boeing. Unlike the LEM and CM this wasn’t already developed when the Bendix report dropped, but it was considered a strong contender for a variety of uses in the future Apollo lunar base. As the base was still a going concern at the end of 1966, NASA clearly felt that it would be worth seeing what good a CAN could serve as a MOLAB if they were already going to be building them anyway. The CAN was specifically designed to be as large as something could be while still fitting on top of the LM Truck, which meant that it was considerably more roomy—38.2 cubic meters and 7.9 square meters of floor—than the LEM and the CM: a major plus if you’re planning on sticking two people in it for two weeks, and a size that even allowed a crew of up to four. Unfortunately, as it was already as big as what the LM Truck was supposed to handle, and didn’t really have anything that could be stripped out, it rang in at 4326 kilograms if given the same capabilities as the other two vehicles. To get it down to fighting weight it had to be reduced to 200 kilometers of travel and eight days of life support (not counting the emergency extension supplies).

All this can be compared to the real MOLAB. It, again, had the same basic trip characteristics as the MOLEM and MOCOM, but being specifically designed for its purpose was able to do so with the lowest weight of all, 3221 kilograms, and so had the associated advantage of letting the LM Truck carrying other things besides just it. It also had more interior space than anything except a CAN, at 7.7 cubic meters.

The final decision of the Bendix report was that the need to make the driver stand while using the MOLEM took it out of the running, while the MOCAN’s restricted duration and range did the same for it. The MOCOM was “just right” but at the cost of being slightly less comfortable for the astronauts while also using up over 500 kilograms more of the LM Truck’s payload capacity. At that point they then threw the problem back at NASA, essentially telling them to pick based on what was more important to them: saving money by re-using a CM, or maybe not having a useful piece of equipment on the Moon because of those 500 wasted kilograms.

What happened to make it fail: Like much of Apollo, even the last few planned missions up to Apollo 20, budget cuts prevented any version of the MOLAB from reaching the Moon.


The seating issue that took the LEM variant of the MOLAB out of the running. Image source same as previous. Click for a larger view.

The Apollo Lunar Base was cancelled outright in 1968, but MOLAB’s death came about more particularly because of the cancellation of the Saturn V past the original production run of 15 rockets. MOLAB depended entirely on the LM Truck, and the LM Truck depended on there being two Saturn V’s available for each mission—one to launch the astronauts as per the usual Apollo mission, and one to launch the Truck with the cargo the astronauts would be using. Once that became impossible, any rover weighing 3800 kilograms was a no go. The actual lunar rovers that were sent to the Moon could be loaded up with the astronauts’ LEM, as they massed a mere 210 kilograms.

What was necessary for it to succeed: The best bet might have been for someone other than Thomas Paine to follow James Webb as NASA administrator in 1969 (or for the Democrat Webb to carry on somehow even as the White House changed from Johnson to Nixon). Paine was very much committed to a technically feasible but politically impossible agenda for NASA based on advancing the state of space technology and moving on to Mars. Someone more realistic might have committed to the Apollo Application Program’s goal of sticking with Apollo-era hardware and improving it incrementally as technology got better over time—an approach quite similar to what the USSR and Russia have done with Soyuz and the R-7 rocket family down to the present day, though to be fair they’ve never had to maintain a lunar launch capability. It may have taken a lot longer than they thought it would in 1966, but something similar to the MOLAB might have hit the lunar dust eventually.

The sticking point here was the Saturn V. It was already shut down in August 1968, with NASA just living on the ones already built until 1973, and the ability to get the production lines running again disappeared over the next few years. Knowledge of the Saturn V’s powerful F-1 engine lasted longer and might have been used for something similar to a Saturn V (without necessarily being a Saturn V) for a few more years after that, but ultimately the clock was ticking just as NASA’s budget was reaching its nadir in the mid-1970s.