Off-World Racing with Tomorrow's Space-Age Engineers: 88 Teams Sign Up for NASA's 16th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race April 3-4
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Off-road racing is just so… terrestrial. Off-world racing is the name of the game at NASA's 16th annual Great Moonbuggy Race, where more than 80 student teams from around the globe will gather in Huntsville, Ala., to propel wheeled lunar rovers of their own design across a simulated moonscape -- one like no other race course on Earth.
More than 500 high school, college and university students from 21 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, Germany, India, Mexico and Romania are expected to gather for the 2009 event, to be held April 3-4 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville.
Each year, teams kick off their participation in the event during the fall semester, well in advance of the spring race. Their challenge: design, build and test a sturdy, collapsible, lightweight vehicle that addresses engineering obstacles similar to hurdles overcome by the original Apollo-era lunar rover development team at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville in the late 1960s.
Their 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 build their vehicles from the ground up, typically using bicycle or light motorcycle tires, aluminum or composite-metal struts and parts, and the most sophisticated -- or just plain dependable -- drive trains, gears, suspension, steering and braking systems they can find or devise. The finished products, said Marshall Center engineer Mike Selby, are far from the cobbled-together monstrosities one might expect. Students' creations, he said, are often "surprisingly fast, durable, smart-looking machines any engineer would be proud of."
That's a key goal of the Great Moonbuggy Race: to inspire students to think like professional engineers, solving the kinds of problems NASA workers face every day as they seek to continue the nation's exploration of space, benefit life on Earth and gain new understanding of our place in the cosmos.
Selby, an avionics technical assistant in the Marshall Center's Engineering Directorate who has volunteered since 2001 as head scorekeeper for the moonbuggy race, said the event demonstrates how science, technology, engineering and math studies can open career doors for bright young minds.
And he should know. While completing his engineering undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Selby was a member of the school's moonbuggy teams, helping them to a second-place finish in 1995 and to first place in 1996. He went to work full time for NASA in 1997, and today builds hardware and conducts analysis for the space shuttles, the International Space Station and the next-generation Ares I rocket.
"The Great Moonbuggy Race is a great experience," Selby said. "The big thing I drew out of it was working in that team environment, being dependent on one another to get the job done. It offers a real sense of accomplishment -- designing and building a vehicle that can race competitively."
Each moonbuggy must be human powered and piloted by two students, one female and one male. There's no official weight limit, but just as pairs of Apollo moonwalkers had to unload and prepare their lunar rover for travel, race drivers must be able to assemble their collapsed vehicle, then pick it up -- with no help from other teammates -- and carry it some 20 feet to the start of the race course.
The twisting, half-mile course includes sand and gravel pits, simulated lunar craters, humps and other obstacles. Top prizes are awarded to the three teams in the high school division and three in the college division that post the fastest buggy assembly and race times. A variety of other prizes, including best buggy design and rookie team of the year, are awarded by the corporate race sponsors.
Eight college teams participated in the first Great Moonbuggy Race in Huntsville in 1994. That initial race commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. The event was expanded in 1996 to include high school teams, and participation has swelled each year since.
NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race is one of dozens of educational programs and initiatives led by the Marshall Center each year to help attract and inspire America’s next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers -- those who will carry on the nation's mission of exploration, to the moon and onward into the solar system. The race is hosted by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and sponsored by NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate in Washington. Major corporate sponsorship is provided by Northrop Grumman Corp., The Boeing Company and Jacobs Engineering Science Technical Service Group, all of Huntsville.
For more information, visit: http://moonbuggy.msfc.nasa.gov
For information about other NASA education programs, visit: http://education.nasa.gov
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