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Photos: Lunar lessons for moonbuggy makers

NASA's annual Great Moonbuggy Race brings out the creative and competitive sides of aspiring engineers. Can they handle the terrain?

jonskillings2022
jonskillings2022
Jon Skillings
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
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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.

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Rochester Institute of Technology, front view

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.
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Huntsville Center for Technology team 2

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.
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Erie High School team 2

This is the other first-place finisher, Erie High School team 2. The prize for the first-place high school teams was $500 plus a week at the nearby Space Camp.
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Erie High School, three-wheeler

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.
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Ohio State University

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.
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Southern University

A team from Southern University in Louisiana careens down the course--but who's steering?
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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.
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German Space Education Institute

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.
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Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology

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.
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McMaster University

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.
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University of Wyoming

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.
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Pittsburg State University, off-course

But we do have visual evidence of what happened with this team, from Pittsburg State University in Kansas, when it veered off-course...
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Pittsburg State University goes down

The result was a sort of two-wheeled, Joie Chitwood-style stunt turn. Here's hoping the hand on the ground prevented a full wipe-out.
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Lima Senior High School, upright

By contrast, the landing for this team from Lima (Ohio) Senior High School...
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Lima Senior High School, upside-down

...was a lot less graceful. NASA did not say whether any of the Great Moonbuggy Race participants were injured during the contest.
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Fairhope High School

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.

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Carlisle County High School

Exultation? Fatigue? A warning to clear the track? This expressive team is from Carlisle County High School in Kentucky.

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