Mieczysław Bekker (1905–1989) – fly me to the Moon
He gained international fame and recognition thanks to the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which American astronauts drove on the Moon. Mieczysław Bekker, while working for General Motors, headed a team of constructors who were commissioned by NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to design and build the LRV. Bekker designed the vehicle’s chassis.
Off-roaders, SUVs and other wheeled vehicles adapted to driving off paved surfaces are a relatively young, a little over 50 years old, branch of civil car industry. Civil off-road vehicles are directly inspired by military vehicles and were designed by large car manufacturers. One of the most important creators of the design of this type of vehicles in the world is a Polish engineer, Mieczysław Bekker.
He was born in Strzyżow near Hrubieszow. When he was a few years old, he moved with his family to Konin, where he attended secondary school. Since his early childhood, he was fascinated by space, inspired by his father’s tales and books found in Konin’s libraries. In a letter sent to Konin in 1980, Mieczysław Bekker recalled: (..) “one of the most important episodes in my life in Konin was when I accidentally came across a 19th century book collection, which had ended up in the school’s library. I cared for one of the exhibits - an issue of “L’Astronomie populaire” bound in gilded leather (1st edition from 1880) by a French astronomer Camille Flammarion. I have been interested in astronomy ever since. (...)”
What did Bekker dream about as a student? Could he suspect that many years later, the adult Mieczysław Bekker would create a vehicle that would drive on the Moon?
After graduating from the Warsaw University of Technology, he started his designer career at the Military Engineering Research Institute. He was responsible for assessing off-road vehicles offered to the army and was working on the theory of how vehicle wheels or tracks behave on loose surfaces.
After World War II broke out, he ended up in Canada, where he worked at the Armoured Weapons Research Office. In 1956, he moved to the US, where he first took up a position at the Military Laboratory of All-Terrain Vehicles. In the 1960s, he gained international fame and recognition thanks to the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which American astronauts drove on the Moon. Mieczysław Bekker, while working for General Motors, headed a team of constructors who were commissioned by NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to design and build the LRV. Bekker designed the vehicle’s chassis.
The designs of almost all civil off-road cars produced around the world after the mid-1960s were to a lesser or greater extent based on the results of Mieczysław Bekker’s research.
In 1971, Bekker visited Poland for the first time since leaving the country during the war. Later, he would visit his homeland every few years. During his stays in Poland, no technical organisation expressed any interest in meeting him and honouring his achievements as a constructor. The only distinction Bekker received was the title of an Honorary Citizen of the City of Konin, which he was awarded in 1979.
Mieczysław Bekker died in Santa Barbara in California on 8 January 1989.
Did you know?
The Lunar Roving Vehicle was designed following a request for proposals announced by NASA in 1961. Mieczysław Bekker competed for the contract with another Polish engineer, Stanisław Rogalski, who worked for Grumman.
Mieczysław Bekker authored three fundamental works in the field of terrain vehicles: The Theory of Land Locomotion published in 1956, Off-the-road Locomotion issued in 1960, Introduction to Terrain-Vehicle Systems published in 1969.
Mieczysław Bekker received the academic title of professor in the United States. He was also granted an honorary doctorate by many prestigious European technical universities.
In the 1930s, Mieczysław Bekker took part in the work on constructing off-road versions of Polish passenger cars, Fiat 508 and 518, and the Fiat 618 lorry, for the army needs.