For astronauts, it was a ride like no other on the dusty, rock-filled surface of the desolate moon.
For the Kent Valley and hundreds of its aerospace workers, it was a monumental accomplishment.
Maker of the durable “moon buggy,” Boeing’s Space Center in Kent was a major player in Apollo’s bold and ambitious lunar exploration of the early 1970s.
The battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle – developed, tested and assembled in Kent – allowed NASA astronauts greater mobility to roam powdered valley floors and slopes and negotiate rugged terrain to examine the lunar surface and gather soil and rock samples for scientific study.
The three reliable rovers used on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions remain on the moon today, a reminder of America’s success in the Space Age race and Kent’s contribution to the country’s legacy of lunar exploration. Boeing committed more than 2,000 employees to the $73 million program.
Such an effort is now being officially recognized, the rover protected.
The eight-member King County Landmarks Commission on Thursday unanimously granted the city of Kent landmark designation for the three lunar rovers. The commission arrived at its decision after a 54-minute public hearing at a nearly-filled Kent City Council Chambers.
Many spoke in favor of the move. No one spoke in opposition to the idea.
“It’s a celebration of who Kent is, of our history, of our innovation, of our place in history, and all of the good things that make up this city,” elated Mayor Dana Ralph said afterward. “We are very excited.”
The designation comes amid the glow of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a decision rendered on the eve of the Apollo 15 launch, NASA’s first rover-accessed mission 48 years ago.
The commission came away impressed with Kent’s collaborative campaign to secure historic status and heritage protection for the rovers. The city’s 74-page application was accompanied by 20 letters of support for the rovers’ landmark designation. City officials worked with Kent Downtown Partnership, Boeing – its Museum of Flight and engineer alumni – and other groups during the drive.
“The rovers that went to the moon are enduring symbols of the magnitude of that achievement,” said Harris Atkins, a Boeing engineer who worked on the rover. “And the fact that they have chosen to recognize it is really important.”
Kent becomes the first community landmark on Earth to be given protections to the lunar rovers that sit idle some 240,000 miles away.
The next challenge for Kent’s rovers is to gain landmark recognition from the state and be added to the Washington Heritage Register.
If successful, Kent would become only the third state to receive heritage protection for landmarks among the stars. California and New Mexico are the only states to receive symbolic protections for a sundry list of Apollo 11 items that were left behind on the moon.
The rover is Kent’s first community landmark and joins the city’s three other county-commissioned historic designations – the Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, a public park, stormwater detention dam and modernist “masterpiece” of environmental art, built in 1982; the Saar Pioneer Cemetery, established in 1873; and the Mill Creek Historic Neighborhood, recognized in 2014.
The lunar rover is an untold story to many people who live and work in Kent. The landmark designation will help open that book, especially for youth, supporters say.
“They have no idea where these lunar rovers were built, and kids today need to know that,” said Nancy Simpson, who represents Kent on the county landmarks commission and serves as president of the Greater Kent Historical Society and Museum. “We always challenge them that this is something that happened in your community. It didn’t happen any place else in the world. It happened here. It is something you should be proud of.”
“This was an amazing, engineering feat. … It is an amazing part of history that unfortunately a lot of people don’t know. This landmark gives us an opportunity to tell that story, but it also gives the opportunity to inspire the next generation.”
The landmark designation is important, supporters say, because it honors Kent and the rover program’s cornerstone past, celebrates its place in the present and preserves its future as space exploration moves forward in the 21st century.
It also serves as an educational resource – a milestone to understand and a lesson to spur tomorrow’s workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related career fields.
“(The rovers) will instill and continue a sense of awe and pride,” said Dave Kaplan, local government relations manager for the Port of Seattle Commission, who spoke in favor of the designation.
Boeing historian Michael Lombardi said the landmark designation represents an important part in space exploration history for the Kent community.
“It means so much to me that we’re preserving this piece of history, Boeing history, that I am very proud of,” he said. “This isn’t just about history, this is our identity in Kent. This is who we are. We are an innovative, high-tech community. And it’s also about our future. In 10 years we’re going to be a space-faring race. Humanity is on the cusp of a space-faring race … people working and visiting space.”
Kent-based Blue Origin, other U.S. companies and competing countries are yearning to launch missions to the moon and beyond.
All of which makes it even more important to protect the past.
Sean Smith, Covington’s mayor pro tem, spoke eloquently about the iconic rover and the need to preserve it in the wake of strengthened landmark designation.
“It’s one of our greatest achievements ever,” he told the commission. “It is an act of hope because, whether we are aware of it or not, this action assumes two things: first, we are up to the challenge of protecting these resources, and two, more importantly, it assumes there will be future humans to inherit these resources.
“It seems in this day and age we are more divided than ever,” he added. “We need reminders that it hasn’t always been so. Our destiny need not be one of continual division, and that we can pass on a better world to those who come after us.”
The city of Kent and its partners have begun a capital campaign to build a replica lunar rover for a downtown park. Organizers hope to install the lunar rover in 2020 as part of the planned improvements at Kherson Park, 317 W. Gowe St.
The City Council in April approved spending more than $123,600 for a company to build the replica, with more than $85,000 of that coming from private fundraising efforts.
“We’re open to all kinds of possibilities with it and help share its amazing history,” Ralph said of the interactive park idea with the replica rover. “Space is in Kent. It’s here to stay in Kent, from Boeing all the way to Blue Origin, and we are so proud of that legacy.”