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NASA Chat: Student Teams Battle Lunar Terrain at NASA's 17th Annual Moonbuggy Race
Great Moonbuggy Race
Great Moonbuggy Race

Students participate in NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race. Image credit: NASA/MSFC
› NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race
› Moonbuggy Race Fact Sheet (PDF)
› Previous Race Results/Photos
› Flickr: "The Face of the Race"

NASA's 17th annual Great Moonbuggy Race is set for April 9-10 at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. There nearly 100 student teams from high schools, colleges and universities around the world will propel wheeled rovers of their own design around a simulated lunar landscape.

The Great Moonbuggy Race is organized annually by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, and has been hosted by the U.S. Space and Rocket Center since 1996.

NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race is one of dozens of educational programs and initiatives that Marshall leads 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 in the decades to come.

On Tuesday, April 6 at 3:00 p.m. EDT, Marshall Center experts Dennis Gallagher and Durlean Bradford answered your questions about the moonbuggy race. Read the chat transcript below.

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Chat Transcript

(Moderator) Brooke: Welcome to today's Web chat with NASA experts Dennis Gallagher and Durlean Bradford. Our topic today is NASAs 17th annual Great Moonbuggy Race, being held on April 9-10. Please remember to stay on topic! So let's get things started and take your questions!

micky: What is a Moonbuggy?

Dennis: A small, lightweight vehicle that can be powered by a young man and young woman over a course that has been set up at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

(Moderator) Brooke: How many teams are competing this year?

Dennis: There are 92 teams currently expected to compete and one high school observing. There are currently 40 high school teams and 55 college teams among these.

vemerson: Are you still looking for volunteers?

Dennis: No, but feel free to come by and watch!

(Moderator) Brooke: Has the course changed from last year's competition?

Tavish_DeGroot: What is the purpose of the one high school that it observing?

Dennis(: They couldn't finish their buggy on-time, but we give them the opportunity to come and observe. It's useful for teams to see the buggies that others have designed and to talk to them about their experiences in order to prepare better for making their own buggies.

MoonFan1973: Why is it called moonbuggy?

Dennis: It's patterned after the original lunar rover from the early 1970's Apollo missions.

(Moderator) Brooke: How much does a moonbuggy weigh?

Dennis: We don't really know, except that the male and female rider are expected to carry their buggy without other help over a distance of 20 feet. A few in the past have been too heavy for riders to carry. This year for the first time, we will have a design award called the "featherweight" award. The objective is to construct not only a capable buggy, but a lightweight one. This is the first year we weigh buggies that want to compete for this design award.

Tavish_DeGroot: How does having the students' buggies human-powered apply to the objective of a real moonbuggy?

Dennis: It needs to be light and efficient on the use of power. The goal is to get young people to think like NASA engineers and solve the same kind of problems that NASA engineers faced when building the original rovers.

wjett: How long is the course?

Dennis: Approximately 0.7 miles. All uphill. Both ways. :)

(Moderator) Brooke: This is a moderated chat. It may take a few moments for the queue to catch up to your question, so please don't leave if you don't see your question right away.

(Moderator) Brooke: What are the obstacles made of?

Dennis: Obstacles are made of aluminum, plywood, stone, tires, and loose gravel mix. There's also a sand pit. Hay bales for safety.

wjett: Is the winner determined by time to traverse the course?

Dennis: It's determined by time plus penalties. Penalties can be levied at each obstacle, by design requirments and by assembly area, where buggy teams are also timed for the assembly of their buggies. It's part of the competition for a team to put their buggy into a space no more than 4' on a side cube. That is the shipping volume allowed for lunar rovers sent to the moon.

(Moderator) Brooke: Has the race changed alot since it started in 1994 -- as far as the course design and location?

Tavish_DeGroot: Do you, or are you considering, having a design award for carrying a payload?

Dennis: We haven't thought of that. We have several design awards, but nothing yet for carrying a payload.

(Moderator) Brooke: Who designed the moonbuggy course?

MoonFan1973: Is this race expected to have larger inplications into technologies used by NASA? Designs that the teams come up with etc.

Dennis: The hope is that the experience prompts young students to develop their engineering skills to contribute to NASA's programs in the future. It's not out of the question to find a concept that could have applications in the new rover design for the lunar or Martian surfaces.

micky: Is the URL related to this event?

Dennis: Yes, that's the official blog for the race this year. Another great URL for information is

Dennis: As to who designed the course...designed in 1993 by Dr. Lary Taylor, a lunar geologist and professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; Dr. J.M. Wersinger, a physics professor at Auburn; and Dr. Frank Six, University Affairs Officer at NASA Marshall.

Tavish_DeGroot: What kind of obstacle has been the most difficult for the teams to navigate?

Dennis: The obstacle with a simulated crater and obstacle #3...because of the hard lefthand turn immediately afterward. It's the dark corner for sure!

me: What did you study in your schooling?

Dennis: Physics, physics, and more physics. :) And math. Computer programming. Some psychology and other liberal arts courses.

(Moderator) Brooke: Are the moonbuggies built during the school year?

Dennis: Yes, absolutely. It's often part of the curriculum, even in high school. The opportunities to work on projects and compete nationally are highly desired.

Tavish_DeGroot: What is the most unique design element you have seen so far?

Dennis: An all-composite material moonbuggy fabricated entirely by the students. I believe that was about three years ago, and the team won a design award.

MoonFan1973: Are their moonbuggy kits that go out, or do the teams have to supply all the parts?

Dennis: The teams are responsble for designing and obtaining all parts -- or fabricating them. They're incredibly inventive, too. :)

Tavish_DeGroot: How did you come to be involved with the Moonbuggy race?

Dennis: Marshall has always sought volunteers to support the race event. I started out as a volunteer after the first race in the mid-90s.

Tavish_DeGroot: What do you do in your regular work, when you aren't working with the moonbuggy race?

Dennis: I study natural processes taking place in space near Earth. Sometimes called space weather, the sun through the solar wind and high energy particles that it releases in solar flares and coronal mass ejections interacts with Earth's magnetic field in space to drive million-ampere electric currentsm, energize the Val Allen radiation belts, and cause Earth to be a natural radio source for the solar system.

carmen: Is it more important to create a simple, efficient Moonbuggy or a vehicle which resists greater obstacles?

Dennis: It is important to make moonbuggies that are energy efficient so they can be human powered, strong so they can survive the obstacles, and agile so it can make it over the obstacles.

Tavish_DeGroot: What seems to be a common design element(s) between most of the buggies raced?

Dennis: The use of bicycle tires is very bad! Can you say pretzels? :) The use of bicycle chains -- also BAD, not strong enough. Wishbone suspension, which is good. High ground clearance, which is necessary.

(Moderator) Brooke: What is the fastest time a team ever completed the course?

Tavish_DeGroot: How do you determine the featherweight design award?

Dennis: By weight. We'll weigh each buggy that competes in this design award.

carmen: What kind of moonbugy is most appropriate of all models you've seen?

Dennis: Four-wheelers do better than three-wheelers. Last year, many three-wheel buggies either snapped chains or had tires buckle. Usually wheeled steering is better, rather than levers.

Tavish_DeGroot: From the photos, it seems most of the teams use bicycle tires anyway, even with the risk of pretzel-ing. How many typically end up pretzel-ing their poor buggies? :)

Dennis: Last year, 1/3 of the teams didn't finish for mechanical reasons. That's a lot of pretzels. :)

Tavish_DeGroot: Besides the featherweight award, what other design awards do you give, or are thinking of in the future?

Dennis: There's the best design award. Other awards include Pits Crew Award, Crash and Burn, Most Improved, Safety Systems Award, Rookie Award, Team Spirit Award, Best Performing International Team, and of course, first, second, and third awards in both high school and college divisions.

Tavish_DeGroot: How much testing does it seem students typically do before the official race?

Dennis: Some have constructed their own course, while some do little more than go across curbs and up and down stairs. Team Germany last year drove their buggy across Europe and parts of Asia. Also, not related to the buggy itself, some teams have physical competitions to determine drivers...such as squats competitions!

Tavish_DeGroot: What are the specifications for the Pits Crew and the Crash And Burn awards?

Dennis: Crash and Burn is given to the team that bounces back from the most spectacular on-course breakdown. Pit Award is chosen by engineers based on the most diligent and innovative engineering solution to a buggy problem on-site. Each team is given two chances to run the course.

ericEV94: Will next year's race be called the Mars-buggy race?

Dennis: We're proud of the heritage of the name, but we do include sand in the course, so maybe we'll paint it red. :) The original Great Moonbuggy Race commemorated the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11 lunar landing, so the legacy of that event and the annual engineering and design challenge for students has a proud history and the name "Great Moonbuggy Race" reflects that.

carmen: Do you believe in a certain form/appropriate form for the Moonbuggy? Or do you belive that a team can have a great idea for solving all problems concerning energy, power, protection, flexibility?

Dennis: We see something new every year in the designs, and we LOVE that. We make every attempt to establish design guidelines that ensure safety and function while not restricting creativity.

Tavish_DeGroot: Is it typical for both riders to power the vehicle, or is that a more difficult design to build?

Dennis: Yes, it's typical for the design to use both drivers to power the bike. Sometimes buggies are designed so that drivers independently power front and back wheels, sometimes they share the same powertrain. Often buggies end up with only one driver able to power it..and boy, is that tough!

Tavish_DeGroot: For the Crash and Burn award, how do you determine "the most spectacular breakdown"? :)

Dennis: Usually it's very clear which one is most spectacular. And we have pictures to prove it. :)

MoonFan1973: Is there a way to watch the event live this weekend?

Dennis: Yes, there is, online. You can find the links at the main moonbuggy page at or log in at Ustream at The NASA Education channel, available to most schools, will broadcast much of Day 1 live in addition to the Web streams.

Tavish_DeGroot: Another silly question; do you allow mascots on the buggies? If so, how many teams have them? :)

Dennis: Teams tend to show their creativity on T-shirts and buggy designs. (We flew Peeps on high-altitude balloons, though!) We haven't seen a mascot yet, but if it's not a safety hazard and if the buggy can carry the weight, there's nothing in the rules against it. But no live mascots -- we're talking about stuffed animals and such.

Tavish_DeGroot: How much communication is typically needed between the two riders during the actual race?

Dennis: We specifically ask riders to have a plan to communicate when tor if they have to restore a drive chain to prevent injury. Otherwise, riders communicate to encourage each other, to ovecome obstacles, to coordinate turns, things like that.

Tavish_DeGroot: Just wanted to say thank you for having this chat! It was enjoyable! :D

Dennis: You're welcome -- we enjoyed it, too!

(Moderator) Brooke: Thanks to all of you for all the great questions, and thanks to our guest experts, Dennis Gallagher and Durlean Bradford! Check back in the next day or so for a posted transcript of today's chat.

Janet Anderson, 256-544-0034
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.