With Eyes on the Moon, Student Teams Getting Ready for 12th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race
They're working in classrooms, garages and shops all across the country -- and beyond -- inspired by past space explorers and future space missions. They're trying to figure out the best way to design, build and race a human-powered buggy capable of traveling around a half-mile track on Earth.

Seventy-two student teams from 20 states, Puerto Rico and Germany will compete in NASA's 12th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race. It happens April 8-9 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

A team from Lafayette County High School in Missouri goes airborne and then makes a hard landing during the 11th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race. Image to right: A team from Lafayette County High School in Missouri goes airborne and then makes a hard landing during the 11th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race. Image credit: NASA/MSFC

The race is inspired by the original Lunar Rover team that, more than 40 years ago, designed a vehicle that was compact, durable and able to handle the rigors of the tough, unflinching environment of the Moon.

The experience these students gain now could prove invaluable in the future, as some become the next generation of astronauts, designers, engineers and scientists. They may one day contribute to the goals of the Vision for Space Exploration, which include returning the Space Shuttle to flight, completing the International Space Station, traveling to the moon, Mars and beyond.

The student teams compete to design a human-powered vehicle that fits into a space no more than 4-feet long, 4-feet wide and 4-feet high, can be quickly unfolded and ready to ride, yet light enough for its two drivers to carry. During the race, the two operators -- one male, one female -- power and drive the vehicle, against the clock, over a half-mile, simulated moonscape-like obstacle course. The race will test not only the participants' physical endurance, but the reliability and strength of their moonbuggies. High school division teams will race Friday April 8 and college teams will compete Saturday April 9.

One team with a string of successes in designing and building moonbuggies comes from Lafayette County High School in Higginsville, Mo., a community of 4,700, 57 miles east of Kansas City. Lafayette County students won the Great Moonbuggy Race in both 2002 and 2003, and tied for a second-place finish in 2004.

Jacob Larimore, a senior at Lafayette County and a member of this year's student moonbuggy team, said he and his classmates started working on this year's moonbuggy right after last year's race. "It takes us about seven months to build," he said. "The only thing the winning team last year beat us on was steering, and we're working really hard on that this year," added Jeremy Hoefer, also a senior team member.

Most of the work is done on the students' own time. "We work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons for about four hours each day, and usually seven to eight hours on Saturdays," Larimore said.

"The whole team has learned that not everyone needs to know how to do everything, so this year we're all specializing more in the areas where we are the strongest," said Alesia Kays, a Lafayette County senior.

"I love building things, and this has allowed me to work on metal," said Eli Biesemeyer, also a senior. "I've learned how to be a better welder and I've been able to teach others. It's a really good feeling. It must be how teachers feel."

The experience is not only good today, but for the future, said Steve Goodman, the Lafayette County High teacher who leads the school's moonbuggy effort. "We're proud that three of our seniors this year who are members of our moonbuggy teams have been accepted in the engineering program at Missouri's Rolla University. And we know of at least seven previous moonbuggy students who are now in engineering programs, plus others who have gone into education fields, as well," Goodman said.

Lafayette County and scores of other schools across the country get support from their school boards, their community, local businesses and industry to compete in the Great Moonbuggy Race. The support includes donations of money, equipment, services or supplies.

Some colleges and universities have added the moonbuggy competition to their curriculum. Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas is one of them.

"We started competing in 1994 because we were looking for a college course to help students produce in-concept design, engineering, manufacturing and assembly activities. Moonbuggy has it all," said Tim Thomas, a professor in the Engineering Technology Department at Pittsburg State and coordinating professor of its mechanical engineering program. "It also gives students exposure to other skills they will need, such as budget planning, preparing presentations and public speaking."

This year, Pittsburg State is fielding two teams, as it has for several years, and also is helping students from Freiberg University of Mining and Technology in Freiberg, Germany with the design and construction of their moonbuggy. The Freiberg students will participate in the 2005 Moonbuggy Race as a demonstration team -- one that builds a buggy and races, but doesn't compete against other teams.

"The knowledge and hands-on experience these young people get through the Moonbuggy Race is something they take with them as they pursue careers in engineering, science and technology," said Durlean Bradford, the race coordinator and an education specialist in the Academic Affairs Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. "They approach the project with the same level of enthusiasm you find on a football or basketball team. The crowd cheers them on, they get pumped up and really compete."

For more event details, race rules, information on the course and photos from previous competitions, visit:


Martin Jensen
Marshall Space Flight Center