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: