When America's space agency hosts the annual NASA Great Moonbuggy Race April 26 to 27, 2013, in Huntsville, AL, it will mark 20 years of "keeping the wheels turning," say organizers of the popular education initiative at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
They are referring to the wheels on the lightweight, human-powered "moonbuggies" designed, built and tested since 1993-94 by about 10,000 high-school- and college-aged students who have participated in the Great Moonbuggy Race.
Each spring, scores of students register for the race and travel to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville to represent their schools, their youth organizations, their hometowns large and small, or even countries half a world away. They compare inventive buggy designs, meet NASA team members, and spend two grueling days demonstrating can-do spirit and teamwork as they tackle a rocky, obstacle-strewn "lunar" race course. All of this is done in pursuit of the educational challenge and the victory of problem-solving, as well as pride in accomplishment, trophies and, yes, good old-fashioned bragging rights.
But there is more to "keeping the wheels turning" than hosting an innovative sporting event year after year, says Tammy Rowan, manager of the Academic Affairs Office at the Marshall Center. To her team, the philosophy means keeping in motion the wheels of discovery and innovation — critical drivers for continued exploration of Earth and the cosmos beyond.
"It's the turn of those internal wheels that we're most interested in," she says. "It's always been NASA's goal to work closely with educators, enhancing classroom learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with practical, hands-on challenges that fuel excitement and suggest paths to rewarding careers."
This year, roughly 100 registered student teams from 33 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, Germany, India, Mexico and Russia are working feverishly to complete this year's crop of buggies and raise the funds to make the trip. Will it be worth it?
"It absolutely will," says NASA engineer Chris Randall, an employee recruiter in Marshall's Office of Human Capital and a member of the moonbuggy team from Alabama A&M University in Huntsville in 2004, where he was then a student majoring in mechanical engineering.
"I already had my eye on NASA as a career goal, but the race definitely piqued my interest," Randall says. "We were a young team and hardly knew what we were doing, but we sweated blood on that vehicle. Our instructor, Dr. Amir Mobasher (who teaches mechanical engineering and continues to mentor race teams at Alabama A&M), showed us how to apply the engineering principles we were studying, how to use computer-aided design and how to conduct dynamic testing of our materials. Over the course of the year, we poured our hearts and souls into our buggy."
The ridges, gravel pits and sandy sinkholes of the course are unforgiving, however, and Randall's team had a catastrophic breakdown early on. It didn't stop them. They worked feverishly at the on-site, NASA-managed machine shop; fielded their buggy a second time; and rallied to 13th place, deep in the college pack. But that didn't matter to Randall.
"It was one of the best experiences of my college career," he says.
It also helped lock his sights on the rewarding career he now has -- building rockets for NASA and helping recruit new generations of scientists, engineers and explorers. And he's not alone.
NASA engineer Mike Selby was a student racer for the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1995 and 1996. He and his teammates those years won second and first place, respectively. Selby graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and went right to work for NASA. He has been a race volunteer ever since — one of hundreds from Marshall who come out to help — and for the past several years has served as head timekeeper. He considers it payback.
"This competition provides a tremendous amount of real-world experience you just can't replicate in a classroom," he says. "Whether students serve as buggy drivers, wrench jockeys, welders, team secretaries or fundraisers, it's an experience none will ever forget — and one that demonstrates career paths and aptitudes that can change their lives forever."
Dr. Paul Shiue, who heads the Mechanical Engineering Department at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, agrees. He has mentored moonbuggy teams for the school since 2000 and loves coming back each year. "We'll be back every year as long as funding is available," he says. "This is a great project for students to exercise skills related to teamwork, problem-solving, design, manufacturing and communication."
NASA designed it that way, inspired by the Apollo-era Lunar Roving Vehicles built at Marshall in the late 1960s and driven on the moon during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions in 1971 and 1972. Students' buggies address many of the same design challenges NASA and industry engineers overcame to deliver those historic rovers, which dramatically expanded astronauts' range across the lunar surface, helping them conduct vital research that captured the fascination of a generation.
For two decades, NASA has sought to capture new generations in similar fashion. "Only about 5 percent of students can get really excited about cracking open textbooks," Randall says. "For the rest, it takes something more. It takes passion. It takes dirty hands. It takes a lot of late nights in the machine shop and long days at the test track, working it out as a team."
He smiles. "It takes a year of that, and then 10 minutes hurtling around the moonbuggy course with the crowd cheering you on. After that, for moonbuggy racers, the sky's no longer the limit."
The NASA Great Moonbuggy Race is organized annually by the Academic Affairs Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. It is sponsored by the Human Exploration & Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center has hosted the event since 1996.
Major corporate sponsors for the race are Lockheed Martin Corporation, The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Aerojet and Jacobs Engineering ESTS Group, all with operations in Huntsville. Other corporate and institutional contributors include Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) of Huntsville; ATK Aerospace Systems of Salt Lake City, Utah; Davidson Technologies Inc. of Huntsville; the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), headquartered in Columbia, Md.; the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville; Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Two-Four; Teledyne Brown Engineering and MSB Analytics Inc., both of Huntsville; the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), headquartered in Reston, Va.; AI Signal Research Inc. and Industrial Fabrication Co., both of Huntsville; and the Tennessee Valley chapter of the International System Safety Society, headquartered in Unionville, Va.
Learn more about the NASA Great Moonbuggy Race:
Watch the race live April 26-27, including the April 27 awards ceremony, on UStream: