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Interview with Ferenc Pavlics, lead developer of the Apollo Lunar Rovers

Ferenc Pavlics is one of the most outstanding minds of the era when Hungarians were forced to seek a career abroad, mostly because of the financial and political situation in the country. Pavlics emigrated in 1956, he made engineering drawings for the off-road department of General Motors and was later appointed to engineer there. He also got in touch with NASA due to his expertise in the field. He became the lead developer of the Lunar Rover of the Apollo Mission and was an advisor of the engineering teams of the Mars rovers.

His personal life was not less extraordinary. After his exodus to the States, he moved in the seventies to Austria, then to Germany and finally to Spain to contribute to General Motors' expansion in Europe. Now retired, he lives in the States again.

In the following interview he mentions many of his unique professional and personal experiences: NASA and the Lunar Rover, his relation with the astronauts, engineering of off-road cars, environmental protection and even the State Defense Authority of the communist Hungary!


Pavlics Ferenc a holdautó modelljével

Ferenc Pavlics with a model of the moonbuggy (TMT)

Greetings, Mr Pavlics!

Good morning!


You have had a long and impressive career. Could you name a professor who had started you on the journey?

Of course. I'd attended the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Budapest University of Technology between 1946 and '50. I'd had a number of excellent, old-school-type professors such as Géza Pattantyús, Ádám Muttnyánszky or Imre Vörös. They were excellent teachers and had thought me the principles of science and my profession creating the base of my future life and career.


Did these men determine you in your work?

Yes, I always remembered them whenever I faced a difficult, challenging task. But I had no contact with them from then on.


How did you emigrate?

We decided with my wife at the end of November 1956, after the Hungarian Revolution, to leave the country. We applied for a visa to multiple countries and finally decided to go to the United States – despite the fact that I didn't speak a single word in English. I expected to work as a street sweeper until I'd learn the language, but I was so lucky that after only five days, a gentleman from General Motors showed up in the refugee camp – that was in New Jersey, next to New York – to look for engineers. He interviewed five Hungarians in the camp and hired all of them immediately.

That's how I got to Detroit where this gentleman, Dr. Becker – who became my boss afterwards – was ordered to assemble a new lab to study vehicle-soil interactions. I mean, how could a car have a good grip or what is the resistance it has to overcome. That was our job but since I didn't speak the language, I only made engineering drawings at first. A couple of months later though, after I did learn enough English, I was appointed to engineer. Also,  later I was transferred to Santa Barbara, California. I spent the next part of my life here, working for the same department.


How did NASA get interested in you with the Lunar Rover project?

As I mentioned, the lab's task was to find out how a wheel works on an off-road car or indeed any vehicle on the ground. When the Apollo lunar landing program was announced in the sixties, we contacted NASA in case they would need a roving vehicle. It was a very special off-road challenge and we were very interested in it. Our first assignment was the Surveyor-program which was started in the middle of the sixties. We designed a small rover that had been originally planned to be attached to the lander.

As the planning of the Apollo program was already under way, examining the lunar soil became the main mission of the Surveyors, to see if a space probe could land on the Moon or it would sink beneath the surface. It was an urgent mission so there was no time left to install a rover as well. We continued the work though. A large-scale experiment involving a vehicle was planned in the Apollo program. The first idea was to send a huge, 4-ton car capable for accommodating two astronauts for 14 days and driving hundreds of kilometers. But a separate Saturn-V would have been necessary to launch and deliver the car to the Moon, exactly to the astronauts' landing site. This turned out to be too expensive and complicated and NASA decided to concentrate on sending and returning the astronauts themselves. Yet General Motors continued to finance my team and we tried to come up with solution to fit a rover that could transport two astronauts into the already designed Lunar Module. It was our idea to fold the rover and “wrap up” into the corners of the module.  And the most difficult task was probably to convince NASA that it is indeed possible to launch a rover along with the astronauts.




How was this challenge different from General Motors' ones? What was the difference in your work?

It was quite similar to that job, actually. As I said, we were dealing with the problems of an off-road vehicle here too. Here on Earth this was more or less restricted to military and agricultural vehicles of course, but determining the moving abilities of a lunar rover was the same exercise.


Who did the team consist of?

At first there were 15-20 people in the lab. That included the five Hungarians as well but there were technicians too. We designed experimental devices, built small-scale models of them and tested those in the lab. We also did field tests of full-scale vehicles of course. Then our work took a very different course when we finally got the assignment from NASA.

I was the leader of the program and we set up a huge team. It consisted of about 400 people at the height of the program, including designers and testers together of course. My job was quite different at the time as well, mostly connected to technical management. Fortunately, everybody was so interested in space exploration back then that all of my inferiors, the whole team worked wholeheartedly. Nobody had to be egged, almost everybody worked over hours and nobody complained. We were in excellent concordance.


So it wasn't really hard to coordinate so much people if they worked so gladly.

That was my luck, yes.


You've mentioned that you'd met many Hungarian engineers. Did you have any peculiar professional experiences as a Hungarian?

My work had many stages. The first, of which we talked already, was research where I'd worked with other Hungarians. Then came the design and development of the Lunar Rover that I still consider the most interesting part of my technical career. When the space exploration assignment ended, General Motors wanted a liaison to the East-European, communist countries and transferred me to Europe. I had connections with Hungary in that period too. My office was in Vienna, I could reach Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia easily – that lasted from 1978 to 1981. My most interesting job was at the Rába factory in Győr (Hungary) during that time. The agreement on fabrication of truck rear bridges that were shipped to Detroit and the UK was considered a great accomplishment. Signing it was one of the landmarks of my career.


And you helped the Hungarian car industry as well.

The contribution with Rába started the factory in Szentgotthárd which is still producing for Opel.


If you look back at you career, what is your dearest memory? Could you point out something?

My dearest memory is related to the Lunar Rover. I had to train all the astronauts when they came here to Santa Barbara. So I had the chance to meet and become good friends with all the astronauts who drove the rover on the Moon.


Do you still have contact with them?

Yes, I do with a few of them. Dave Scott*, the first man to drive on the Moon, lives here in Los Angeles so we run into each other occasionally. But I meet the others on the reunions, we all come together on the twenty-fifth, thirtieth, fortieth anniversaries and so on.

As a Hungarian I had another interesting experience when I was awarded with the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic two years ago that I received in Budapest on the 15th March**.

*Apollo-15 astronaut

**National Day of Hungary.


I guess you are glad that Hungary recognized your work.

Yes, it was by all means very touching.


Was there any kind of acknowledgment in the socialist era or nobody even mentioned that a Hungarian was working in such a high-level job?

No, the Hungarian press didn't even mention that program, it was kept quiet during the socialist era. What is more, during my time in Eastern-Europe when I was working with the Rába factory in 1980, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the federal government embargoed the communist states. Moods started to chill and the Hungarian intelligence summoned me and persuaded to become their spy during one of my visits. I rejected the offer of course and asked General Motors to transfer me immediately.

Since I was already in Europe, I ended up in the Opel center in Germany, where the development of the Opel Corsa was about to begin. I worked there for two years. We initiated the beginning of production that was eventually started in Zaragoza, Spain and it is still going on there. I was appointed to director of quality control and I overlooked the start of production and moved to Spain two years later. I lived there for two years, until the factory was ready to produce 1200 cars per day. It was a very interesting job and it was very satisfying, when the first car was completed.


And you popularized Hungary in the West while we were still a socialist country. Switching to the future from the past, what do you think? Today's trend seems to be that the private sector is growing up to the government-driven space exploration. We already have space tourists spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and the first commercial spaceship, Dragon, is about to fly. What do you think, will the private sector take the lead from governments in space exploration?

I don't think they will be able to do just that because an Apollo-type program or the future plans to visit an asteroid are too risky for the private industry. Big companies like Boeing and Martin Marietta* or a European commercial company would have a hard time to reason it because of the risks. Virgin is working on their private spaceship that has seats available from 200 thousand dollars. But there aren't many people who can afford so much for a half-hour long spaceflight. My guess is that the plans of the commercial sector will be quite limited. Large programs will still require funding from NASA or ESA but the Chinese will join them in the near future.

* Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed Corp in 1995.


That's right, cutting the Grand Prize of the Google Lunar X-Prize is also connected to the landing of the next government-sponsored space probe. What's your opinion on this competition?

I haven't looked into the details of this initiative but still I'm a little skeptical about it. Sending a space probe with a small rover to the Moon is a huge amount of work, launch and communications alone would cost a magnitude of hundred million dollars. Who could invest a hundred million to win twenty? That's a bit fuzzy for me.


And what's your opinion about the entry of the Hungarian team PuliSpace?

It's a very ambitious program indeed. As far as I know, other teams have been working for two years now on the project thus PuliSpace may have entered a bit too late since there is so much work to do. My main concerns are the possible sponsors, who will finance the project? The launch itself, the rocket, the transfer, or communications between the Moon and Earth. You have to find some sponsors.


Well, negotiations are under way but yes, we all hope to find a good sponsor. We've shown our potential, there will be new rover developments soon, so we have something to start with. Since you've had a long and impressive career, you have very valuable insight to the field. What do you think about the development of technology and space exploration? What will be the next great leap?

Energy is one of the great concerns of today since we will run out of oil and gas sooner or later. And there is the case of air pollution too. I think only science and technology will be able to answer the demand with the help of non-pollutant energy sources.

On the other hand, making agriculture more efficient is just as important because we will have to feed billions and billions of mouths. Development and innovation will focus on these fields because only technology and science will be able to solve these problems.


You are fully retired now. Was it hard to leave behind the drawing board?

I founded my own, small consultant company after my retirement from General Motors and continued to work with a small group. I worked as an advisory for NASA and for others like Boeing or universities as well. My working relations with NASA continued up to the beginning of this year. I worked on the Mars rover programs, the Pathfinder and the two little Mars Exploration Rovers that still are going on. My last assignment at NASA concerned the Constellation program. I worked on a vehicle family that would have been used in the first phase in the Constellation program if a Moon base would have been built. But the Obama-administration canceled the program so my work ended as well.

I'm now fully retired but my life is far from boring. I have two sons, one is San Diego and the other in Arizona and we meet each other quite often. I have a close relationship with my three grandkids too and I have many old friends here in Santa Barbara. We play tennis twice a week, together with other old colleagues of course. I like gardening too so I live a full life.


I see that you still live a very active life. At last, do you have a message to the young generation? Something you would like to share with them?

My message is to not to miss out the opportunity for a technical profession. Today's trend seems to be that everybody wants to be a lawyer or sociologist and science and technology gets neglected. Not just in Hungary but here in the States too. This also means that the most talented kids end up in other fields and this could have a negative impact in the future. And they should learn! Learn languages to be able to create foreign relations, could read professional literature, be able to go abroad because that's the only way to solve the problems of globalization.


Thank you very much for the interview, Mr Pavlics!


Márton Deák

Translation by László Molnár

Last Updated (Sunday, 03 July 2016 21:42)

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