NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race Helps Steer Students' Career Paths, and May Take Some to the Moon
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
News Release: 06-037
Students find one of the best ways to learn is to make it fun. And set significant goals.
Today, in classrooms and workshops, high schools and colleges across the country, students have set their goals and are having fun working on what some teachers call one of the more effective and challenging classroom projects: NASA's 13th annual Great Moonbuggy Race, conducted by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
For two days in April, high school and college students will bounce their way across a simulated lunar surface at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center -- the culmination of months of hard work. The lessons they learn getting there could last a lifetime and perhaps help them reach a real lunar landscape someday.
The student teams spend countless hours creating their moonbuggies from scratch. From the drafting table where they refine their designs to manufacturing and assembling the vehicles, the students work hard toward a goal of at least finishing the grueling half-mile course. These competitors face some of the same challenges NASA engineers faced when building the original lunar rover used on the moon in the 1970s. The original lunar rovers were designed at the Marshall Center.
The challenges student teams take on start long before the buggies pull up to the race's starting line. They begin when teams enthusiastically decide to take on the project.
"My advisor sent me to the Great Moonbuggy Race Web site to see what I thought, and I was hooked," says Geremy Draper, a junior at Flinthills High School in Rosalia, Kan., a town of less than a thousand residents on the outskirts of Wichita. "I immediately started drawing plans with my classmates. We had to figure out how to build a moonbuggy, then work to make it smaller and lighter while keeping it strong." Draper will be one of the drivers in the school's first entry into the Great Moonbuggy Race. And his enthusiasm is contagious.
"I'm excited because this is our first year and we get to start from scratch," says Flinthills' team advisor Don Callaway. "These kids get to explore with their imaginations and build something they get to drive. Plus, I think the NASA connection only helps foster excitement because all the kids are seeing rocket ships in their heads. It's great."
One high school team that's a veteran of the competition offers advice for first-year competitors: "Even if you don't think you're ready to run, bring your machine," says Jeff Breece, advisor to the Madison County Career Center team from Huntsville, winner of the 2005 high school division race. "You can learn a lot by making mistakes and fixing them. Plus, you can see how more experienced teams fix problems they encounter on the course."
The excitement about the race is not exclusive to first-year competitors. Many competing schools make the event an annual project. Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan., is entering its 10th year of competition. The race is so popular among its students that it's now part of the school's curriculum.
"The best thing we learn is how to turn an idea into a design, then into a prototype and eventually into the finished vehicle," says Jacob Lehman, a senior at Pittsburg State. "We use the computer to go step-by-step through the design and testing phase to eventually rolling over the obstacle course."
The process of designing, building and racing a moonbuggy helps students in high school and college learn practical applications for math, physics and analytical thinking. Jim Ellis, manager of the Academic Affairs Office at the Marshall Center, believes those intangible benefits far outweigh the trophies awarded to race winners.
"The race provides a hands-on learning experience where students not only design an engineering test model, but build it and bring it to Huntsville to test it," Ellis says. "The race has become a proving ground for students to use their knowledge in a real world situation. While they explore important scientific areas, teams also learn to recognize the importance of a cooperative effort and teamwork in reaching their goal of a working moonbuggy."
After the months of design, manufacture, testing, breaking, fixing and re-testing, the pay-off finally arrives when teams check in at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for race day.
"It's safe to say the air is charged with excitement," Ellis says. "The same can be said for the Marshall team members and our aerospace industry partners who help make NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race such a success. We look forward to seeing the vehicles and the future scientists and engineers celebrate their hard work and put their vehicles to the test."
Larry Williamson, a Pittsburg State University professor and advisor to the school's moonbuggy teams over the years, looks back fondly on his and his students' first race.
"At our first race 10 years ago, we were on a shoe-string budget and drove all night to get to Huntsville," Williamson says. "After the race, we spent all night driving back home. The students were so elated about the experience they stayed awake talking about it the entire trip. We were not there to win, just to see if we could do it."
The team exceeded its own expectations that first year, coming in third and beating out the previous year's winner Georgia Tech from Atlanta. Pittsburg State has since won the competition twice, in 1999 and 2001, and finished second last year.
The Great Moonbuggy Race -- and all the work leading up to it -- encourages students to think about their future, Williamson says. "Our community and high schools have seen what our team has accomplished," Williamson says. "Some have decided to compete in the high school competition because of our moonbuggy. We like to think we've indirectly influenced more students to begin a career in math, science and engineering."
One high school student in particular agrees: "Watching all this come together is great," Draper says. "I've always thought about a career in space, but if I can't get that far, finding a job building and testing things like moonbuggies would be pretty awesome."
The first Great Moonbuggy Race was run in 1994 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing. Eight college teams participated that first year. In 1996, the race was expanded to include high school teams. For the 13th running of the race this year, 58 teams will rumble across the simulated lunar surface. Many volunteers from both the Marshall Space Flight Center and the space industry ensure the success of the event. The Northrop Grumman Corp. sponsors this year's Great Moonbuggy Race. Other contributors include the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA); ATK Thiokol; CBS affiliate WHNT Channel 19 of Huntsville; Jacobs/Sverdrup; Morgan Research Corp.; Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC); the Tennessee Valley Chapter of the System Safety Society Inc.; and the United Space Alliance, LLC.
For more event details, race rules, information on the course and photos from previous competitions, visit:
For information about other NASA education programs on the Internet, visit: