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Moonbuggie team
A competitor in the Great Moonbuggy Race navigates the difficult course. (credit: A. Young)

Of Moonbuggies and the Vision

I recently came back from a trip to Huntsville, Alabama to conduct research for my next book. While there I took in NASA’s 12th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race held at the US Space and Rocket Center. I had read about the event for years and finally had the opportunity to observe the competition. Between trips to the Marshall Space Flight Center History Office and the University of Alabama in Huntsville Archives, I managed to squeeze in time to look over the vehicle entries, talk with the high school and college contestants and walk the obstacle course that snakes throughout the Space and Rocket Center where the race is held every year. I came away encouraged by the students’ ingenuity and drive, but concerned for their career opportunities.

The entries included teams from high schools and colleges and universities. The high school entries competed on Friday, but the course was soggy from intermittent rain that impacted their times. Saturday dawned clear and dry and it was obvious the collegiate teams would have a better go of it. Walking through the parking area where the universities and colleges had set up their vehicle and team stations was a study in contrasts. Some teams showed up with slick trailers with their moonbuggy chained securely, and spare parts lining the trailer walls. Other buggies arrived in the back of aging pickup trucks, while some were shipped in crates. The appearance of dollars spent was no guarantee of victory, I found out later. However, sound engineering coupled with team fitness proved to be the winning combination.

This annual race grew out of NASA’s desire to motivate high school and college students to display their engineering ability and foster interest in aerospace careers. The Lunar Roving Vehicle used on Apollo 15, 16, and 17 served as the inspiration for the Great Moonbuggy Race. While the vehicle requirements are considerable, they followed these basic guidelines:

  1. In its stowed position, it must not exceed a 1.3 by 1.3 by 1.3 meter (4 by 4 by 4 foot) cube, necessitating the vehicle folding to fit in that cube,
  2. It must deploy and lock into operating position [the deployment is timed and makes up part of their overall score],
  3. One male and one female contestant must be able to pick up the vehicle and move it a specified short distance, and
  4. It must be peddle-powered by both contestants.

I was struck by the irony that none of the young entrants were even born when the Lunar Roving Vehicle traversed the Hadley Plane, the Descartes region, or the rugged valley at Taurus-Littrow on the Moon during the last three Apollo missions.

Brains and brawn required

I dodged moonbuggies whizzing by as the teams check out their vehicles before being called to the starting line. I studied other teams as they made their final adjustments or repairs. The vehicles on display ran the gamut of design and fit and finish. Some had crudely welded steel tube frames and rudimentary suspensions. Others displayed carefully welded aluminum frames with coil-over-shock suspensions, machined aluminum wheels with disc brakes, and prudent use of mountain bike components. Every entry was different but all had to be capable of surviving the challenging half-mile course.

Some teams showed up with slick trailers with their moonbuggy chained securely, and spare parts lining the trailer walls. Other buggies arrived in the back of aging pickup trucks, while some were shipped in crates. The appearance of dollars spent was no guarantee of victory, I found out later.

The contestants’ dress ran the gamut as well. On the one hand you had baggy shorts and T-shirts with worn out sneakers. On the other hand you had Utah State University. Dressed in their tight electric blue USU tops, black tights, new jogging shoes and teardrop helmets, undergraduate David Huish and graduate student Megan Mitchell looked for all the world to be members of the US Olympic cycling team. They unnerved more than a few teams, and with good reason. They were in superb shape and their vehicle was superbly engineered. They also had an iron will to win. Last year, their vehicle, fabricated of carbon fiber composite, won the Most Unique Vehicle award and received the “Best Engineering Design” from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, but suffered a broken drive mechanism during the race and the team did not have a spare.

The first team to leave the starting point didn’t even make it through the first obstacle, an undulating gravel berm. One of the drive chains jumped the sprocket and the team could not fix it. They had to cart the vehicle off. A few teams couldn’t complete the course, underestimating the strength and stamina necessary to do so. Other vehicles succumbed to bent rims, broken spokes, sheared bolts, snapped chains, flat tires, or other mechanical problems. Some vehicles actually overturned. This year the course included a dust pit comprised of sand to heighten awareness of the dust problem the LRV encountered on the Moon. The word “brutal” was heard frequently, describing the course.

Utah State University, known for its excellent aeronautic, aerospace, and mechanical engineering schools, had per haps a decided advantage. Last year they raised nearly $17,000 to build their vehicle, with ATK Thiokol, Hypercomp Engineering, Raytheon Company, Boston Gear, and others contributing. (NASA rules permit fundraising to pay for the colleges’ vehicle design, development, material costs, and other expenses.) USU was back for 2005 with an even better machine, this time with fore-aft seating and every potential weak point eliminated. Along with Mitchell and Huish were team members Skylar Cox, Tim Leeds, Austin Hughes, Juan Stromsdorfer, Jon Walker and David Bartholomew.

With Huish facing forwards and Mitchell at his back, they peddled No. 72 up to the starting line. At the sound of the starting horn, the vehicle sprinted away. They effortlessly cleared the first obstacle, sped up the hill and were out of sight in seconds. Huish barked out course signposts and upcoming turns to Mitchell, who could not see what was coming. I felt like I was witnessing an Olympic event. They hit a hay bale but didn’t slow down. The minutes ticked by as they sped around the course. The two students came back into view as they made for the finish line underneath the Space Shuttle mockup. Stopwatches clicked and they had covered the course in less than four minutes. Each of the 28 teams would have two runs of the course. Later that day, the USU team duplicated their blistering time. When the team scores and times were tallied, Utah State University was the victor. They collected the $3,500 cash prizes—divided among the seven team members and their advisor, Dr. Todd Mosher—the first place trophy, and congratulations from two illustrious names associated directly with the Lunar Roving Vehicle: Saverio F. Morea and Ronald A. Creel.

On the shoulders of giants

When Marshall Space Flight Center was given the daunting task of engineering the Saturn V launch vehicle for Apollo, Dr. Wernher von Braun selected Saverio F. Morea to be the program manager for development of the Saturn’s F-1 engine, the most powerful rocket engine ever built. With the successful completion of that program, Morea was next given responsibility to manage the Lunar Roving Vehicle program. The sterling performance of the LRV is a testament to his firm leadership of that difficult and highly compressed program. Morea was at the competition again this year to encourage the students in the pursuit of their future careers.

This year the course included a dust pit comprised of sand to heighten awareness of the dust problem the LRV encountered on the Moon. The word “brutal” was heard frequently, describing the course.

Also present was Ronald A. Creel, who had graduated from college in 1969 and was immediately snapped up by MSFC to work on the thermal protection system of the LRV. A new engineering graduate could not have had a more challenging first program. Ron was responsible for ensuring the LRV’s numerous electrically powered subsystems remained within operating temperature parameters, which included the vehicle’s batteries, signal processing unit, directional gyro, traction drive steering motor, and other components. While both Morea and Creel went on to work other programs—Morea is retired today, Creel works for Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)—Project Apollo remains the greatest program they could ever have hoped to work on. Both men feel today’s students need that kind of program to challenge them and use their abilities. Both are concerned such future challenges may not be there for the graduates of today. Harry Ames, deputy director of Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, was quoted in the June 2004 IEE Review outlining the dilemma faced by students today:

“It’s a multifaceted problem—retirement and education based,” Ames said. “This is a hard industry to be in. It is a relatively high-risk business and the pressures are tremendous. As you age up to the 60 year-old bracket, you find our body just doesn’t have the tolerance for the 20-hour days you put in sometimes, so people are retiring early and taking all the knowledge with them. Meanwhile, our student population is opting not to go into the aerospace sciences, such as physics and electrical engineering, in favor of software. In addition, the young technical person is very conscious of identity and uniqueness. That is lost when you are one of 150,000 on the same complex or buildings in Los Angeles, Seattle or Maryland. The road to the top is obscure and your early career will likely have as many cancelled programs in it as completed ones.”

If the Megan Mitchells and the David Huishs graduating from colleges and universities in this decade do not have the aerospace jobs they want offered to them as they were to the Ron Creels during Apollo, they will—as Utah State University’s Harry Ames stated—be forced to go where the money is. That would be a tremendous loss to the United States and the nascent Vision for Space Exploration. As I have stated in the past, the VSE is more about the quality of life in America than it is about space exploration per se. The spinoffs from Apollo continued for decades, and we are still benefiting in many areas to this day, something that is lost on most Americans. The mistakes of the International Space Station program must not be repeated, both in terms of dollars and in schedule. There are many positive lesions to be gleaned from Apollo that must be applied to the VSE if it is to succeed, and you can read about then in “What Made Apollo A Success?”

I am convinced America has the ingenious young minds necessary to achieve many of the requirements of the VSE. The recent Request for Proposals for the Crew Exploration Vehicle is only the first step toward that goal. If the many jobs, indeed careers, that will comprise the long-range implementation of the VSE are not there, NASA will have a real problem on its hands. The Vision for Space Exploration is not something that can be outsourced. Where America will be in the 21st century depends on the outcome.