NASA Kicks Off 20th Great Moonbuggy Race
April 26, 2013

NASA Kicks Off 20th Great Moonbuggy Race

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

NASA's annual Great Moonbuggy Race kicked off today in Huntsville, Alabama, marking 20 years since the competition began.

The annual Great Moonbuggy Race involves high school- and college-aged students who build lightweight, human-powered "moonbuggies" that address many of the same design challenges NASA and industry engineers overcame during the Apollo missions. In the late 1960s, NASA engineers designed the Apollo-era Lunar Roving Vehicles to allow astronauts to range across the harsh lunar surface.

The 20-year-old competition is organized by the Academic Affairs Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and is sponsored by the Human Exploration & Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. During the race, students must overcome a moonbuggy course, comprised of a winding half-mile of gravel embankments, sand pits and obstacles that mimic the harsh surface of the moon.

Essentially, the moonbuggies built by the students look like a very complicated four-wheeled bicycle. However, buggies need a well thought out suspension system in order to get through the course efficiently.

"Some buggies show up with no suspension at all," says race authority Dennis Gallagher. "I'm not sure why they'd make that particular choice. I guess they're interested in reliving the bone-crushing antique wagon or automobile experience circa 1905?"

NASA says "only the strongest buggies survive" its simulated lunar course. Over the years, it has seen teams walk away dragging pieces of their buggies with them, including broken chains, snapped frames and buckled wheels.

"This competition provides a tremendous amount of real-world experience you just can't replicate in a classroom," said NASA engineer Mike Selby, who was a student racer for the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1995 and 1996. "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."

NASA said roughly 100 student teams from 33 states and six other countries have signed up to race this year. More than 5,000 students from around the world have participated in the race for the past 20 years. Past winning teams have hailed from Alabama, Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming -- and from Canada and Germany.

Last year, Petra Mercado High School in Humacao, Puerto Rico won first place in the high school division, while the University of Alabama in Huntsville won first place in the college division. The students from Puerto Rico finished the course in three minutes and 20 seconds, while the US college students finished in four minutes and three seconds.