On April 26th, 2013, 89 school and colleges teams representing 23 US States, Puerto Rico, Canada, India, Germany, Russia and Mexico, gathered at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama to participate in NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race.
Now in its 20th year, the two-day competition was introduced by the space agency in 1994 to stimulate student interest in engineering and innovative thinking. It entails building a human-powered lightweight vehicle and racing with it on a half mile racecourse that simulates the moon's heavily cratered surface. While that may sound simple enough, in order to qualify, competitors have to abide by some strict parameters.
The human-powered vehicles not only have to be collapsible, but also, small enough to fit inside a box measuring four feet on a side. In addition to that the driving team, which has to comprise of one male and one female, must be able to pick up the box that contains the vehicle and carry it 20 feet without it touching the ground. Also, each buggy must be fitted with simulated versions of a television camera, high-gain antenna with reflector, two batteries, electronic-controls radio and display console. In addition, it must also have safety restraints, a flag (national or school) and for extra-credit any other add-on features (simulated or functional) that the team can conjure up. Finally and most important of all, the vehicles must be constructed by the entering team!
The rules of the race are pretty simple. Each team is allowed to traverse the track twice, of which the shortest time is selected. To that the judges add the time it took to assemble their extraterrestrial vehicle. The team with the shortest overall time and one that meets all the design requirements, wins.
This year, Puerto Rico dominated both the high school and college category. Teodoro Aguilar Mora Vocational High School completed the half-mile course in a speedy 3 minutes and 24 seconds, whilst The University of Puerto Rico at Humacao who came in second at the 2012 event, completed it in 3 minutes 32 seconds. Both received trophies depicting the original Lunar Rover, the inspiration behind this race, a commemorative plaque, and a cash prize of $3,000 USD.
Awards were also given out in many other categories ranging from best engineering design, to lightest buggy on the road, rookie of the year, most improved and even 'crash and burn' - For the team that endured the most spectacular vehicle breakdown. This year's went to Bevill State Community College from Sumiton, Alabama.
When NASA first began this fun competition they restricted it to college students and while the 8 entries they received in the first year was not shabby, the numbers have swelled substantially since they opened it to high school students two years later, and show no signs of abating.