Feature

International Teams Join Moonbuggy Race
04.02.07
Going back to the time of pioneer rocket developer Wernher von Braun, great advances in space technology have come from German engineers and scientists at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Now, a new generation of German engineers and scientists is coming to town. They are students -- one as young as 13 years old -- and they are coming to compete in the 14th annual Great Moonbuggy Race, April 13-14, 2007, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville.

Traditionally, the Great Moonbuggy Race has challenged U.S. high school and college students to design and build a vehicle that addresses a series of engineering problems similar to those faced by the original lunar roving vehicle team. However, this year two student teams from outside the United States will enter the competition. One of the teams will travel from nearby Canada and the other will make a transatlantic trip from Germany.

A mission patch depicts the face of Wernher von Braun; a moonbuggy; railroad tracks going from Earth to Mars via the moon; the flags of the United States, Germany and Russia; and the words NASA Great Moonbuggy Race Team Germany
The German Space Education Institute is sponsoring the German students. The institute was encouraged to select students and enter the competition by NASA's Jesco von Puttkamer, born in Leipzig, who came to Huntsville 45 years ago to join the von Braun team.

Image to right: Students from the German moonbuggy team designed a mission patch representing their participation in the Great Moonbuggy Race. Credit: Jesco von Puttkamer

Von Puttkamer said the German Space Education Institute, in Leipzig, Germany, has conducted student field trips to both Russian and NASA space centers as part of its efforts to educate German students about the space industry. The institute selected six of its field trip applicants -- all between the ages of 13 and 17 -- to build a moonbuggy for the Huntsville race.

The students have prepared for the race in several ways, von Puttkamer said. They have studied astronomy, the history of spaceflight, and the space exploration plans of both the U.S. and Russia. They have toured German businesses, including an automobile plant, to learn more about transportation, the construction of lightweight vehicles (such as wheelchairs), and material strength. They have analyzed videos of the 2006 moonbuggy race, and the two students who will drive the moonbuggy are training for the physical challenges of pedaling through the crater-like obstacles.

The team members even explored their creative sides by designing a mission patch depicting von Braun, a moonbuggy and railroad tracks going to Mars via the moon.

The students studied and implemented marketing techniques as they sought financial support from sponsors. Von Puttkamer said the students are learning how to share their story with German talk shows, television stations and newspapers.

"This is much more difficult in Germany than in the USA, since the concept of grassroots initiative and commercial sponsoring is quite new there and still regarded with some suspicion and reluctance," von Puttkamer said. "But to have any chance at all, they must 'beat their drum' and learn about such personal marketing -- a good lesson for life."

Another challenge is transporting the moonbuggy to the race, von Puttkamer said. The team must follow U.S. import procedures to bring their moonbuggy into the country. The moonbuggy will be transported in parts in the students' luggage. Each part must be no larger and no heavier than the size and weight limitations set by the airline for international air travel.

"It is important to understand the handicaps these students are working against, a real uphill battle against many odds," von Puttkamer said. "This is the very first time for them, whereas most of the other competing teams in April will have been at Huntsville before and have the benefit of many 'lessons learned.'"

Two students pedal a moonbuggy past a model of the lunar lander
The journey will be the first trip to the United States for five of the six German moonbuggy team members. The team's leader came to the U.S. in 2006 on a field trip to NASA centers, which included Marshall.

Image to left: A moonbuggy team navigates an obstacle during a past competition. Credit: NASA

Von Puttkamer lived in Huntsville in the 1960s when he worked at Marshall with von Braun. He came to NASA in 1962 upon personal invitation from von Braun. He was employed at Marshall in the aeroballistics division for 12 years. In 1974, von Puttkamer transferred to NASA Headquarters, where he still works today. He plans to attend the race, as he did last year, representing NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate.

The Canadian team is coming from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. The students are members of the Carleton University Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. The college was contacted about sending a team to the race by self-described space fan Don McMillan. McMillan attended the moonbuggy race two years ago and returned home to Ottawa, eager for a school in his area to compete.

"I found the races inspiring and was impressed with all of the students' imagination and determination," McMillan said.

McMillan is a graphic artist who has had a life-long interest in space, particularly the Apollo missions. He spent two years researching the original lunar roving vehicle and designing a three-dimensional model of the rover. Some of McMillan's lunar rover animations are featured on the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal Web site, which is hosted by the NASA History Office. He also designed a poster about the lunar rover and distributed copies of the poster to the 2005 moonbuggy race participants.

"After seeing the competition, I felt a competition such as this was important to students looking to the space industry as a career," McMillan said.

Related Resources
+ Great Moonbuggy Race

+ Marshall Space Flight Center

+ NASA Education Web Site
McMillan will attend the race this year with high hopes that his Canadian students will do well. "I hope we can bring this spirit of the competition back to other Canadian schools and enter even more teams next year," McMillan said.

A total of 60 teams in the high school and college divisions will compete this year. In the high school division there are 36 high schools representing 14 states and Germany. Competing in the college race there are 25 universities and colleges from 13 states, Puerto Rico and Canada.

Through competitions like the Great Moonbuggy Race, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's future by emphasizing three major education goals -- attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines; strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce; and engaging Americans in NASA's mission. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on supporting formal and informal educators to engage and retain students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services