NASA's annual Great Moonbuggy Race brings out the creative and competitive sides of aspiring engineers. Can they handle the terrain?
Rochester Institute of Technology in motion
Every year, NASA hosts an "offworld racing" event to challenge college and high school students to think like lunar mission engineers. The 16th Great Moonbuggy Race took place April 3 and 4 at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
This year's winner in the college division, seen here moving at speed, was Rochester Institute of Technology, of Rochester, N.Y. The overall field included 68 teams from 20 states, plus Puerto Rico, and four countries outside the U.S.
The winners in the quest to design, build, and race lightweight, human-powered buggies were determined by a combination of vehicle assembly time, race time, and number of on-course penalties. The RIT team, seen here from the front, finished the approximately half-mile course in 3 minutes, 30 seconds. Besides bragging rights, it took home a $5,700 cash prize.
Two teams tied for top honors in the high school division--Team 2 from the Huntsville (Alabama) Center for Technology and Erie High School Team 2 from Erie, Kan., both of which were 5 seconds faster than the RIT team. Pictured on this page is the Huntsville team 2 buggy.
Erie High also entered a three-wheeled vehicle--which turned out to be the only three-wheeler to cross the finish line. Apparently most such buggies can't generate enough power to get to the finish in a timely enough manner. Overall, of the 68 teams in this year's race, 29 never completed the race for one reason or another.
Race organizers couldn't really adjust Earth's gravitational pull to simulate that aspect of being on the moon, but otherwise they did their best to create some lunar-like hazards, including gravel pits, twisting turns, and other obstacles. Here, the Ohio State University team crosses a crater as it heads for a turn around a replica of the Apollo program's Lunar Excursion Module.
Tudor Vianu National High School of Computer Science
Team 2 from Tudor Vianu National High School of Computer Science in Bucharest, Romania, was a winner for best moonbuggy design--that is, for solving engineering problems associated with travel on the moon. (Tennessee Technological University also won in that category.) The Romanian team won as well for best team spirit.
Gravel hazards don't deter this team from the German Space Education Institute. The Leipzig, Germany, entry turned in the best performance by an international team, and also shared the most-improved award with the Rochester Institute of Technology, according to NASA.
This team is from the Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology in India. It was engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, where the race took place, who designed the actual lunar rover that was first used on the Apollo 15 mission in July 1971, and then again on the Apollo 16 and 17 missions.
Some hazards were trickier than others to negotiate. This bottomed-out vehicle is from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. NASA says that the buggies typically are constructed of aluminum or composite-metal struts, bicycle or light motorcycle tires, and scrounged or created components including drive trains, suspension, and brakes.
The University of Wyoming team had the dubious distinction of capturing the race's "crash and burn" award for the most spectacular vehicle breakdown. Pictures of the breakdown, alas, were not made available.
The shoes taped onto the pedals are reminiscent of the final race scene in the great bicycling movie, "Breaking Away." This vehicle is from Fairhope (Alabama) High School.
The first Great Moonbuggy Race took place in 1994, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was open only to college entries, and eight teams participated. Two years later, high school teams were allowed to enter.