Above the Dixieland: Final Thoughts From Team Germany

Ralf Heckel, advisor for Team Germany, shared these thoughts with us as he winged his way back home to the German Space Education Institute in Leipzig. Can’t wait to have your racers back next year, Ralf!

Delta Comair flight from Huntsville to Atlanta, 04/10/2009 12 a.m.

The small plane has reached its travel altitude of nearly 10,000 feet. We float in the midst of white mountains of clouds. Weirdly, they form gigantic summits, sloping bridges and deep valleys beside, behind and in front of us. Below, there is the fresh green country with the pink blossoming trees. Lakes sparkle. It is spring in Alabama.

The sun shines brightly on the giants of cotton. The pilot often changes direction and height. He seems to fly around the clouds. I feel like a fly in a gigantic white cotton field.

And I am exactly above that scene. Cotton was the main source of income here for many years. A small steam railway brought millions of fleecy white bales from the fields to the Tennessee River where workers packed them in small wheezing steamboats and navigated to cotton mills along the river. Then the bales were loaded into huge steamboats with gigantic red paddlewheels and were brought downstream from Mississippi to New Orleans.

That’s all been over for 50 years now. Only the culture of thousands upon thousands of agricultural laborers and their traders remained. In the evening they played their own music — a mixture of blues from the South and the mostly Scottish folklore of the north. They formed their traditions.

Today it’s known as Dixieland, as a kind of music. But only this word describes the country below me. At this height, you can hardly see a thing, but you can feel it. It is the southern mentality of the people down in Huntsville, Ala. They are kind and always ready to help.

The steamboats were drowned out by the tumult and quake of the rocket engines which became more and more dominant in the area. In a few years, the town and her surroundings developed from an agricultural idyll to a high-tech center which shortly thereafter sent 12 people to the moon.

The southern coziness was complemented with German precision and a hard-sounding dialect, and today this union, with deliberation and aim, moves not just mountains but worlds. The mentality of the German rocket engineers is not foreign at all; it’s the same. Everything is simply made or done, without grumbling; that’s the way to reach a goal.

The two words “Team Germany” are simultaneously an honor and an obligation in this town. Our moonbuggy team received this honor on the cover of The Huntsville Times this year (read the story here: http://tiny.cc/ahDXD) and I’m carrying two awards the team won at the race.

In the meantime, the countryside underneath me has disappeared. I reach the airport in Atlanta with its multinational character. The accents mix and let me know that here the whole world is at home. Everybody complements this big country in his or her own manner, with his or her own traditions.

We have had so many unique experiences these past days with the NASA Moonbuggy Race. I am curious how our students can use those experience, and how their achievements will be accepted by the people of my country.

There is one result only: For my generation it is a bond, a point of honor, to support the international youth in their discovery and pursuit of space exploration. So I use my time on the transatlantic flight to ponder ideas for a moonbuggy promotional tour across Europe and Asia, with international workshops in Germany.

Read more soon.

Thanks to Team Germany’s Christian Hein for translating!

Bringing Something New to the Contest?

Got an innovative idea for a three-wheeled moonbuggy? Placing your riders side-by-side, or back-to-back? How about a custom paint job? Whitewall tires? Cupholder? What unique spin will your team put on its moonbuggy design to win the “Best Design” award come race day?

This six-wheeled moonbuggy built for the 2000 race by students from Autauga
County Technology Center in Prattville, Ala., couldn’t stand up to a punishing
gravel pile. How will your moonbuggy stack up? (NASA/MSFC)

“I think our design award guys get a little frustrated, because you just don’t see quite the same colorful variety of vehicle designs anymore,” says Mike Selby, NASA engineer and GMBR head scorekeeper. “Teams take on the course and endure breakdowns and learn from them. They go back and revise their designs for next year’s race, and they talk to one another — and so, over the years, a basic, proven design strategy has emerged.”

Innovation is still out there, of course — just ask German team advisor Ralf Heckel about composite materials, electronics and onboard software! But in terms of basic structural design, latter-day moonbuggy entries tend to look a lot alike.

Pick up the pieces and run! A team from New Century Technology High School in
Huntsville, Ala., also ran into problems in the 2000 Great Moonbuggy Race.
Pretty standard vehicle configuration… but that mainframe just couldn’t take the
pounding. (NASA/MSFC)

“You do still see some three-wheeled buggies now and then,” Selby says, “but that’s a lot of stress and punishment to put on just one wheel, whether it’s in the front or the back. Those vehicles often just don’t hold up over what turns out to be a pretty punishing course.

Are new teams prepared for all that punishment? “New teams may have a basic understanding of what they’re getting into,” Selby says, “but a lot of veteran racers agree — you’ve got to come to Huntsville and actually compete in the race one year before you really get it. Because no matter how many pictures you’ve seen, how much you’ve studied the layout online… this course can really be a surprise once you’re on it.”

Fitting Inside the Box

It’s not just the course that can be a surprise. Engineering teacher Kanika Vessel, who advises the moonbuggy team at Scotlandville Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, La., told the Buggy Blog her racers dealt with another surprise in 2008, their first year as competitors:

Scotlandville’s team really struggled last year when it came time to assemble the moonbuggy for the race. Due to the fact that the buggy was not able to fit within the 4-foot-by-4-foot-by-4-foot box, we were forced to remove items from the moonbuggy, such as steering and the wheels — therefore adding to our assembly time.

This year we have designed the frame of the moonbuggy so that we will not have to disassemble it to fit inside the box.

Overall the team is gradually making progress. We are using the lessons we learned from our mistakes last year to better the design and performance of our moon buggy.

Now THAT’s an innovative buggy design! Sadly, it’s not a GMBR racer; this
“Moonbuggy” was an entry in the “Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race” in 2007. But we
like their gumption! (American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore)

Bringing something new to the competition this year? Let us know — show off photos of your cutting-edge moonbuggy here in the blog and elsewhere on GMBR’s Web presence! E-mail your images to richard.l.smith@nasa.gov.

Spreading the Word,Raising the Funds

With midterms behind her, Lindsay Los checked in this week with news from the Carleton University moonbuggy team. They’ve all been focused on tests — but now they’re diving back into preparations for the race…

Due to the midterms this past week — and the fact that Carleton was on holiday the previous week — there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress on the actual building of the buggy. However, there have been a few exciting events to fill you in on.
The first was that our final shipment of aluminum arrived and was only missing one (very important) piece!  Now we can finish off the frame in time for our exhibit next Thursday as a part of National Engineering Month.  

The second exciting thing was a direct result of the last blog we posted. The day after the blog went up, we got an e-mail from the folks in Carleton Media Relations, who had noticed the blog and were offering to help us with publicity. This was an awesome and much appreciated surprise! Actually, there have been a few other awesome surprises from Carleton that need to be mentioned. Our applications to the various student groups for financial aid finally went through and we got some funding! 

Though we have been getting more financial help from the university, we still need considerable funds for the actual trip down to the competition. Coming from Canada, this is a fair amount of travel and all travel options seem to be fairly pricey.

Last year we drove, which turned out to be a great road trip — 20 hours down, 25 hours back, great for team bonding! This year we thought about switching it up — maybe flying or… renting an RV! This was a really exciting idea — it would be so much fun and we could even save money on hotel rooms. Then we found out you have to be over 25 to rent and drive an RV. So now we’re back to the original ideas: flying or driving. And definitely renting hotel rooms.

Which is where our fundraiser comes in — “Carleton Moonbuggy Comedy Night,” to be exact. It just so happens that Absolute Comedy, an awesome comedy club just down the street from Carleton, gives various charities and non-profit groups the opportunity for fundraising! They provide the comics — a mix of pros and amateurs — tickets and the venue, and all we have to do is sell them. We’re hoping for a big turnout.

To help promote the event, we’ve created a Facebook event. Facebook users can search for “Carleton Moonbuggy Comedy Night” on the site to learn more or RSVP, and if you happen to be in Ottawa on March 18, come on by the comedy club and help put the FUN in FUNdraising!

The Buggy Blog looks forward to finding out how the comedy fundraiser goes; that’s an innovative idea for raising awareness and money for Carleton’s moonbuggy team! What’s your school doing to raise funds? Let us know via e-mail.

For more about the Carleton moonbuggy team, visit http://cuseds.engsoc.org.

Safety First!

Greetings, racers and moonbuggy enthusiasts! As I write this, we’re just 50 days away from the 16th annual Great Moonbuggy Race. Get pumped!

But not TOO pumped. Safety’s always first on our minds here at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which is why all racers compete in helmets and pads, and the winding, obstacle-laden, half-mile course is lined with some 175 hay bales to minimize wipeouts.

But accidents do happen. Check out these photos from the 2008 competition, courtesy of Marshall Center photographer Emmett Given:

A fearsome-looking crash for two intrepid student drivers from Puerto Rico High School in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, who went airborne at top speed just before taking a sharp bend in the course.

But the duo bounced right back up — and posted the fastest race time of the year among competition newcomers, earning them the 2008 “Rookie Award.”

The key to their success? Mike Selby knows. Mike is an engineer in the Parts, Packaging & Fabrication Branch of the Marshall Center’s Engineering Directorate. He designs and builds avionics hardware supporting NASA’s space shuttles, the International Space Station and Ares I rocket programs. He’s also head scorekeeper for the Great Moonbuggy Race and a former racer himself — for the 1996 college-division champion team from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Speed alone, Selby says, shouldn’t be your goal. “My advice is to build a moonbuggy that’s as fast AND as durable as you can make it,” he says.

And those buggies can get up to greater speeds on the race course than some newcomers might realize. “I don’t think a lot of new racers realize much of the course is NOT covered in gravel and sand,” Selby says. “There are a lot of straightaways, paved areas where you can build up speed and shave time off the clock. But you’re also going to take a pounding going over the obstacles, so it’s just as important to focus on building a good, solid structure in order for the vehicle to survive.”

Not to mention those elbows and knees.

Keep safety in mind BEFORE the race as well. Be sure all team members use goggles and other safety equipment while working on buggies. Riders should always be properly suited up, belted in and wearing their helmets, safety pads and gloves — even during routine field testing. Stay safe

Meanwhile, as race day draws closer, we’re hearing from teams around the world, and everyone sounds busy and confident. Case in point: students at the Huntsville Center for Technology. The 2007 race champs, who took second AND third place in the high school division in 2008, will field two moonbuggies again this year, and they’re hard at work to retake the title.

That’s team member Robby McLaughlin on the left and fellow racer Stephen Cantley at right, fine-tuning their buggy hardware as they prep for another test run.

Fifty days from now, they’ll be among hundreds of competitors tackling the main event.

Stay tuned.