Moonbuggy Road Show — Make That a 'Rhode' Show

Editor’s Note: On April 9-10, nearly 100 teams with more than 1,000 students from high schools, vocational schools, colleges and universities around the world will converge on at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. For the 17th year, teams will propel wheeled rovers of their own design around a simulated alien landscape — and maybe launch future careers as next-generation engineers, scientists and space explorers. Ahead of the race, the “Moonbuggy Road Show” is visiting some of the racers on their home turf and checking out the buggy-building in progress.

From Harford, Connecticut, we found ourselves on the road to Providence, Rhode Island, our country’s smallest state: 48 miles north-to-south, and 37 miles east-to-west. Rhode Island may be small in size, but it certainly offered us big opportunities and rewards!

Our first day dawned to remnants of rainy weather from the recent floods. Since we arrived around lunch time, we decided to try out a local restaurant  — Iggy’s Doughboy and Chowder House. We wondered, so you can, too: “What is a doughboy?” Lori decided to buy an order so we could try it and a doughboy is…drumroll, please…fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. We only ate a couple of bites, so we didn’t exactly soak up the “local flavor” there — time to call it a day.

The next day was our spot on “The Rhode Show.” which we found funny because that’s exactly what we’re doing for three weeks.

And talk about organized chaos! The show was shot out of three different sets with several producers and interns and anyone else you could think of running around putting microphones on people, all while offering coffee and water. We were left in a green room — really, the walls were green! — to wait our turn. We met up with students and an advisor from the Rhode Island School of Design, affectionately referred to as RISD (RIZZ-Dee). It’s their first year to compete and we couldn’t wait to see the buggy they had designed.

RISD isn’t a typical engineering school, but a fine arts design school. The students were very excited and we chatted about what they could expect at the race, while ‘The Rhode Show’ evolved around us. We were seated next to a kitchen set where a chef was cooking up something that smelled really good! It made us ready for lunch.

They may have a huge fancy cooking set, but it was Mike who came to their rescue. Nobody could find a corkscrew for the wine — PANIC MODE! — until Mike, the always-prepared engineer, whipped out a Swiss army knife. We left the knife with them as we were whisked off to another set to prepare for our interview. I heard Mike pleading with Lori, “Don’t let my knife get away!”

In the studio, the Rhode Island School of Design had brought in their buggy, and all eyes were on the interesting contraption. This room held the main news studio and the weather set. We were impressed that the weather lady could just go about her live forecast with so much other stuff going on right beside her. That’s concentration! 

The ‘Rhode Show’ anchor swooped in with about a minute to spare. “Okay, what’s this all about?” Mike quickly filled him in, and by sheer osmosis the students and Mike were told what would be asked. At one point Mike shot me a frightened look…but I winked at him to let him know it’s okay and not to worry…because, in my famous everyday words, it ain’t that deep. And just like that, we were on, and the students talked about their design, and why they wanted to participate, and Mike gave the NASA answers about the race …and it was over in a flash. 

The minute Mike walked off the set, he found Lori and asked, “Where’s my knife?” Something tells me he was a bit distracted through the whole interview. We didn’t have it, so Mike rushed to the kitchen set, and there lay his pride and joy. Whew!

We were exhausted from an early morning, so we went back to the hotel to rest before having dinner with the advisor from the Rhode Island School of Design and the RISD representative to the Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium…otherwise known as the money man who funded the school’s project to be in the race. We met at a restaurant just steps from the school called Park Side — a lovely place I would highly recommend!

The next day found us back at the Rhode Island School of Design to meet with students, tour the shop where they built their buggy and do another interview with WJAR — the NBC affiliate in Providence. This was a really neat setting as the students were able to ride their buggy outside with the downtown skyline of Providence in the background. 

Although, the whole time we were worried about our car. The advisor told us that parking was tight and just to pull up and block someone in and leave a note on the dashboard with our cell phone number. We looked at each other, wondering if this was such a great idea. The advisor must have noticed the looks. He said, “Don’t worry, we do it all the time. If you get a ticket, just wad it up and throw it away.” Very reassuring. 🙂

And those weren’t the only curious looks. You should have seen the looks on drivers’ faces as this weird moonbuggy came pulling up to a red light beside them. I heard Lori say, “The cops must be pretty forgiving in this town.”

After spending a few hours at the school, it was time to pack up…literally! Time to see if we could shove everything we’ve acquired during the past two weeks — including dirty clothes — will fit into our suitcases for the plane ride home.

Finally, home sweet home in Alabama! We have just enough time to do laundry over the weekend as we prepare to go from the Bay of Rhode Island to the Bayou of Louisiana — or in food terms, from “chowdah” to gumbo.

You can learn more about the race at these links:

Sweet Home Chicago

Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago WAS a lucky one, and it proved to be “our kind of town.” Thanks to those of you who wished us well!Not only did we capture the interest of the Chicago Tribune and NBC affiliate WMAQ, we also talked Moonbuggy with Chicago’s own WGN.

We visited East Chicago Central High School in East Chicago, Indiana. We arrived around 9 a.m. and couldn’t find a parking place.  Mike was behind the wheel — again — while Lori and I were busy scoping out the visitor’s parking lot to see if someone was going to move their car. Senior staff personnel, moonbuggy team members and advisors from Purdue University Calumet were also meeting us there, and we were anxious to get inside to greet them. 

Finally, someone came out to move their car. Lori and I decided to take ownership of the space and save it while Mike circled the parking lot to get to the side where we were standing — along with a truck that was hoping to get the same space. Lori, in a very polite and Southern way, said, “I’m sorry, we’re visiting the school from NASA and we really need to park since they are expecting us right now.” The young man driving the truck said okay and sped off, then I exclaimed, “Oh my goodness…there’s a moonbuggy on the back of that truck!”

Needless to say we had to smooth things over when we met face-to-face with those guys from Purdue University Calumet! They’re  racing for the 7th year and were gracious enough to bring their buggy for the TV shoot. It was really refreshing to learn that the Purdue Calumet students have been helping the East Chicago team by mentoring them and even giving them a moonbuggy frame they had used last year. The classroom was quite modern. Students were using laptops to program robotic equipment to perform simple tasks. Mike even commented his high school classroom was never that high tech. He also explained to Lori and me what they were doing, but he might as well have been speaking a different language — I said that’s why you’re an engineer and that’s why we do what we do!

The first reporter on the scene was Marcus LeShock from WGN-TV. And it just proves that a moonbuggy brings out the kid in all of us — as Marcus couldn’t wait to climb on board…

…but first he interviewed Mike and then the East Chicago advisor Deandre Hudson. They both did well, but he needed to get some perspective from the students about the competition. Funny thing though, you just never know what kids are going to say. He asked one of the female students how psyched she was to go down to Huntsville for the race and she said, “Well, um, that’s like around prom time, so I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” We laughed about that all day.

So then we took a walk outside where Purdue Calumet’s team put Marcus in the driver’s seat of their buggy. As he rounded the parking lot, he said, “This rides like a Cadillac!” That’s what he thinks — the simulated lunar craters on the racecourse aren’t as smooth as a parking lot! We finally got Marcus off the buggy and on his way, just in time for WMAQ to arrive. They interviewed the students and Mike and all went very well.

Once it was a wrap, we decided to take in some of the Chicago attractions. It was Mike’s first time to the windy city so we took him to the highest point — the top of Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) The view is quite amazing from the tallest building in North America…although we had a small mishap on our way up. We had to go through security and Lori’s purse got hung and destroyed in the conveyor belt. Let’s just say she was not a happy camper.

From there it was on to 1060 West Addison, home to the historic Wrigley Field. After a few snapshots and a HUGE slice of pizza we headed back to the hotel to pack…AGAIN! So Mike got to see the Willis Tower, Wrigley Field, but no Jake and Elwood. (That’s a Blues Brother’s reference in case you didn’t know.)

An early morning flight from Chicago’s Midway Airport carried us to the next leg of our trip — Hartford, Conn. We had the hook up from one of Lori’s old TV buddies at WTNH. Meteorologist Matt Scott had us on his Saturday morning show, “Good Morning Connecticut.”

While Lori and Matt caught up on old times, Mike and I greeted the moonbuggy team from Central Connecticut State University. Students Hitesh Shah and Jeff Cloutier brought their buggy down for the show. Although it still needs a few finishing touches, it was very impressive to see. Everyone did great!

We couldn’t leave Hartford without taking in a joint right next door to our hotel that came highly recommended. “Black Eyed Sally’s” was the place that made us feel most at home. Known for its BBQ and “chowdah,” it didn’t disappoint! And what did we see on the wall, but a painting of the Dreamland BBQ logo from Tuscaloosa.

You can learn more about NASA’s Great Moonbuggy Race at these links:

Get Ready to Race! The 2010 'Moonbuggy Roadshow' Goes on the Road. Again.

On the road again —
Just can’t wait to get on the road again.
The life we love is talking Moonbuggy with our friends…
And we can’t wait to get on the road again
Going places that we’ve never been
Seeing things that we may never see again
Can’t wait to get on the road again
Like a trio of gypsies we go down the highway
We’re now the best of friends…

Paraphrasing “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson seems appropriate as we embark on the third Great Moonbuggy Race Roadshow. Mike’s behind the wheel and Lori and I and are booking interviews, while constantly filling his head with moonbuggy facts so he really sounds like the expert that he is.

Okay, if you’re new to all this and didn’t follow the blog last year, you may be wondering, “What the heck is a moonbuggy?” If past designs mean something, it may look like this:

On April 9-10, over 100 teams with over 1,000 students from high schools, vocational schools, colleges and universities around the world will converge on at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. For the 17th year, teams will propel wheeled rovers of their own design around a simulated alien landscape — and maybe launch future careers as next-generation engineers, scientists and space explorers.

Even though the Great Moonbuggy Race is still three weeks away, we decided to visit some of the racers on their home turf and check out the buggy-building in progress!

We started out Sunday meeting at the Huntsville International Airport — not to catch a plane, but to pick up a rental car. I was at Alamo with Mike telling the rental agent that we needed something bigger than an HHR so we could have a place to sit after putting our luggage in the car. Meanwhile, Lori was looking for us at the Avis counter, where I apparently told her we would be. I promise I wasn’t trying to leave her.

After scoring a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, we left Huntsville about 10 a.m. Sunday morning headed to Ohio, where we were scheduled to be on WDTN in Dayton on Monday. In past races, high school and college teams from Ohio have carried home multiple awards from the Great Moonbuggy Race for speed records and pit crew performance — so this is definitely moonbuggy country!

The state of Ohio might be known as the Buckeye state to most, but we saw items of interest that made our “eyes buck” while driving on Interstate 75. Little did we know that we’d see Jesus on the way! I told Lori and Mike about a sculpture that stands in front of the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio. It’s suppose to be the largest statue of Jesus Christ in the United States, and you can definitely see it while driving up Interstate 75. BAM! There it was! We got off the interstate so Lori and Mike could get pictures, and while I was praying for safe travels, I overheard Lori say to Mike, “You never know what you’re going to get into when you’re traveling with Angela!”

Then again, you never know what you’re going to get when you race a moonbuggy either. Check out this photo from the 2009 race. Don’t worry, no one was hurt!

We arrived in Dayton about 6:30 in the evening local time. We checked into hotel #1, got a luggage cart, made it to our rooms, met for dinner and then called it a night. On a side note, it’s really difficult to unpack two suitcases full of clothes for two weeks when you just have to pack back up the next morning and move on. Let’s just say our suitcases were a mess…and this is only Day One?

Day Two began with Mike’s first big show: a noon booking on station WDTN. The funny thing is, everyone thought we were with Wright State University because that was the team we were there promoting. Every time someone would come up and introduce themselves, they’d ask, “Wright State?” The reply? “No, NASA.” It became rather humorous to always be “wright” and still always be wrong. Mike even got on the set and the anchor said, “Wright State?” Well, no… He explained that we were with NASA in Huntsville, so the anchor said, “I’ve been there. My cousin lives in Madison.” Just to show you what a small world it is, the anchor’s cousin lives in MY neighborhood!

So now you see what we do. We travel to various TV stations, targeting places where participating moonbuggy race teams are from. We contact media outlets to let them know that a high school/college/university in their coverage area will be in Huntsville to race a moonbuggy that they designed and built on simulated lunar terrain at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. We give a ballpark date of when we’ll be in the area and ask to be on one of their shows, then pull all the dates and “takers” together to plot our course. (Our news chief refers to it as the “Moonbuggy Death March Across America.”)

This year the road takes us from Dayton to Lima (Ohio); from Chicago (Illinois) to Hartford (Connecticut); then on to Providence (Rhode Island); traveling to Mobile (Alabama); onward to Baton Rouge (Louisiana); then a rapid-fire tour of Birmingham (Alabama), Nashville (Tennessee); and finally back to Huntsville — all in just under three weeks. All in all, we’ll cover a gazillion miles…I’m pretty sure that’s a technical term. We’re glad you’re along for the ride with us!

By the way, this is what a “simulated lunar terrain” has looked like for past moonbuggy races. I don’t think our minivan would be a good choice for this place:

Day Three finds us on the road to Chicago after a live noon appearance on WLIO in Lima, where we were joined by some of the Lima Senior High School team. This one we have to admit was a pretty easy sell because the news anchor’s twin daughters are on the team! Mike even commented how nice it was to be interviewed by someone with “insider scoop.” From there we were invited to Lima Senior High School, where we were greeted by their entire team and advisors in their “shop” where they have built two moonbuggies to race. Mike talked with them about their different designs — he is an engineer, you know — while Lori got a big head as the students recognized her from emceeing and announcing at the race every year. 🙂

We also talked to the students about how we’ll be streaming the race live on our Web site this year so their friends and families back home can watch. They showed us the many awards they’ve won just in the past three years of competing in the race — and we hope their fourth year is the luckiest year ever for them!

Wednesday will take us to Chicago TV stations, so wish us luck! (Get it? It’s St. Patrick’s Day!)

You can learn more about the race at these links: