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Gearing Up for NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race 2012
Hand-sketched designs cover dozens of sheets of paper. Wheels, brackets and bolts are hammered and welded. An excited group of students are ready to show off their creativity, and are craving a bit of competition.

Two students pedal a moonbuggy over a mound of gravel

A team from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence pedals through a bumpy patch of the course at the 2010 NASA Great Moonbuggy Race. The school will join some 100 returning and rookie student teams at this year's competition. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

That's how it all began for students at three schools -- Cameron University in Lawton, Okla.; the Huntsville Center for Technology in Huntsville, Ala.; and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence -- when they joined the ranks of rookie teams in NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race in 1997, 2002 and 2009, respectively. Since those first years of their competition, their designs for the specially crafted lunar rovers or "moonbuggies" have been repeatedly modified, their moonbuggies' parts tinkered with and altered, and, of course, their team members have changed.

But that initial excitement each student team experienced has proven a timeless constant as they compete year after year with other teams, all after the same goal: a first-place victory.

Approximately 100 returning and rookie teams from around the world will join these now-seasoned competitors in the battle for a top finish at the 19th-annual NASA Great Moonbuggy Race on April 13-14, 2012, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

More than 500 high school, college and university students from 20 states and Puerto Rico, Canada, Germany, Russia, United Arab Emirates, Italy and India are expected to participate in the race.

Students begin to prepare for the event each year during the fall semester. They must design, build and test a sturdy, collapsible, lightweight vehicle that addresses engineering problems similar to those overcome by the original Apollo-era lunar rover development team in the late 1960s at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The buggies are based on the design of those classic rovers, which American astronauts drove across the moon's surface during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions in the early 1970s. Teams of students build their vehicles using trail bike tires, aluminum or composite-metal struts and parts.

"We do most of the work on our moonbuggy in our precision machining and welding classes," said Tim White, who has been students' moonbuggy mentor at the Huntsville Center for Technology since 2002. The school will have two teams in this year's race. "We get some of our other technical classes involved, too, to help with assembly and painting,” he said. "It's a lot of fun for these kids.

"We have a school-wide assembly in September and show a video of the previous year's race to attract new students to participate in the competition," White added. "Anyone can sign up and register. Then we have our own moonbuggy competition -- using our old buggies and plotting out a course on the school grounds -- to determine who will be on our teams. Whoever has the fastest time gets to be a team member.

"I think the important thing is to get these kids out there and see what work in the 'real world' is like. They thrive on the challenge of turning a concept drawing on paper towels and napkins into a finished product. Good things definitely happen when we all work together. That's just something they can't get in a classroom."

Each moonbuggy is human-powered by two students -- one female and one male -- over a half-mile simulated lunar terrain course that includes "craters," rocks, "lava," ridges, inclines and "lunar" soil.

Moonbuggy entries are expected to be like a "proof-of-concept" or engineering test model, rather than final production model. Each student team of six members is responsible for building its own buggy, and the vehicle's drivers -- chosen from each team -- must be among the moonbuggy's builders.

"We are making major modifications to the buggy we used last year," said Mark Polson, the mentor for the Cameron University team since 2007. "Our main goal is to reduce the weight of the buggy."

The Cameron team has several new members working on those modifications. When it comes to recruiting new team members each year for the race, communication is key as seniors reach out to younger classmates to recruit them into the competition. Most moonbuggy team members are also members of the university's computer-aided-design drafting club, Polson said.

"Engineering is hard work but so rewarding," he added. "These kids get excited about building something from scratch and enjoy getting to know students with similar interests from other schools. I think that's what brings them back year after year."

Michael Lye, mentor since 2010 of the Rhode Island School for Design team, agrees. "Our team comes from our industrial design program. The challenge of designing and building something, and then competing against other schools, gives them a chance to see their hard work in action. It is a great learning experience for them -- going from design to actual fabrication."

This will be the first year the Rhode Island team includes sophomores, as well as juniors and seniors. Lye said the school also is involving students majoring in other fields, hoping to use their wider range of skill sets for their buggy's development.

"The moonbuggy race is a big deal at our school," Lye said. "We are the only art design school in the competition, which makes us unique from the other teams. I think that also pushes our students to do a good job. It is a great way to learn."

As a part of the competition, and prior to course testing, the unassembled moonbuggy entries must be carried to the course starting line with the unassembled components contained in a box that is 4 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high -- dimensions similar to those required for the original Lunar Roving Vehicle. At the starting line, the buggies will be assembled and readied for course testing and evaluated for safety. Assembly occurs one time prior to the first course run.

"At last year's race, our team had to make last-minute modifications to our buggy to make it fit that box," Lye said. "We are making significant changes to our buggy so that doesn't happen again this year."

Top prizes are awarded to the three teams in both the high school and college/university divisions that post the fastest race times, which include assembly and penalty times.

"We haven't placed in the top three yet," said Polson. "That's a big goal for us this year."

A variety of other prizes are given by corporate race sponsors. These include "rookie of the year" and the "American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Telemetry/Electronics Award" award. The latter is a new award this year, for the team that develops and operates the most innovative and most useful real-time telemetry system -- used to track data on the moonbuggy's performance at the race.

NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race is one of many educational projects and initiatives the agency conducts each year to attract and engage America's next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers.

"This race has really opened our students' eyes to all their career possibilities -- including those at NASA -- where their talents can shine," Lye said. "Five of our alumni have gone on to work at the Johnson Space Center. The competition really fits in beautifully with our curriculum and gets our students enthusiastic about technical careers."

The race is sponsored by NASA's Human Exploration & Operations Mission Directorate. Major corporate sponsors are Lockheed Martin Corp., The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Corporation and Jacobs Engineering ESTS Group, all with operations in Huntsville. Other corporate and institutional contributors include Science Applications International Corp. of Huntsville; ATK Aerospace Systems of Salt Lake City, Utah; Davidson Technologies, Teledyne Brown Engineering, Booz-Allen Hamilton and Stanley Associates, all of Huntsville; the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and the Systems Safety Society's Tennessee Valley Chapter.

For more information about the competition, visit NASA Great Moonbuggy Race.

Megan Davidson/NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center