Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Moonbuggy World Champion – An Unexpected Title

written by Ralf Heckel, International Space Education Institute
translated by Regina Peldszus, Kingston University London
corrected by Terry Wall, MSFC

Huntsville, April 12th 2010


The unexpected has happened. Beating 2nd place team by just one second, our team became the 1st place winner this year. The following 4 teams were close behind, within 4 seconds. Of all the scores, even of the university class, our team is the best worldwide. It's not explicitly mentioned, but it's a fact.

One team (Jupiter High School of Florida, USA) was faster by 4 seconds on the race course, but their design was lacking when un-folding the buggy. While our team was ready to gorace in 6 seconds, the faster team took 16 seconds. The fastest assembly time was only 4 seconds, but that team's parts wouldn't have fit into a collection of luggage suitcases.

Thus in this sense, our team is the world champion! – a title that's logic, but which wasn't mentioned.

Today is a cosmonautics celebration day. 49 years ago, Yuri Gagarin went into space, and 29 years ago the Space Shuttle first orbited Earth. I'm looking towards the future: Will we succeed in having a Russian team join us in the upcoming anniversary year? It could be a small but important "space race" for the youth. For next year, also the Lunar Rover celebrates its 40th anniversary. In my experience, national thinking is not easily left behind when not working in multi-national teams. Here, it could serve for motivating all parties to achieve their best.

I'd like to recap the previous hours while they're still fresh in my mind. Again I'm taking the team to the Space & Rocket Center. The kids are full of energy and drive, cool and focused, ambitious and deliberate in their striving to unite their feelings for a single cause. This is how I've known them for four years. This is the most amazing time for every teacher or youth educator. But this moment only happens before the Moonbuggy Race or in Moscow / Star City. No-one but me, Yvonne and a small number of teachers really know how this moment feels.

I know that this moment won't last and that it really depends on the success and attention of the organisers. We lost too many students during the last years due to "burn out" following the race – the requirements in addition to the long journey and high costs are too tough. Those who stuck with it and didn't give up are here behind me. I'm driving as carefully as if I was carrying the national gold reserves in my van.

It's not busy yet on the course. The team is toughened up after the success yesterday. Max goes through his training drill with the drivers and I re-position the cameras. This time the van will become a Mission Control Center for the telemetry data that we cherish so much. It has a long antenna mounted to the roof.

I notice that there is none of the usual Moonbuggy excitement as there's hardly anyone in position. The team isn't worried. There are no typical worries such as: "Do we need to be faster today? ... How are the others doing? ... What do we need to take special care of?" To be in pole position is a heavy lot. However, the birds are chirping and the warming sun reaches out over the tree tops and doesn't distract from the goal. Both drivers have watched their board video and telemetry data for a long time yesterday. They have developed new strategies with their 17 year old trainer Max, and position their pedals in a cross. That's how they want to avoid progressive thrust and slip during the start.

The reward comes promptly: NASA twitters: "Steffi and Stefan get off to a killer start – no Obstacle 1 penalties". I'm at the toughest obstacle, the Lunatic Curve and have three cameras ready. The two come in with incredible speed (according to telemetry 15mph/24kmh). Stefan looks relaxed after experiencing his speed record of 50mph/80kmh on a trail, and hits the brakes 2ft/50cm before the obstacle. After a fraction of a second he immediately releases the brakes. He knows that he's now in control of more than 1g, which in turn heats up the brake discs to 600°C. He is steering a machine with a combined mass of more than 400 pounds/200 kg.

For a short time, the buggy dives as far as it's able to into its front axle suspension travel and then, released again, rises over the steep hill. After checking telemetry, Stefan managed an acceleration of 36,5 ft/s² (11.5 m/s²). That's an overload of more than 1g. Well done! This is how you turn "Hase-shock absorbers" into kangaroo legs with gauge airpressure. While the wheels touch the uneven gravel, they are not strained. Stefan's front wheels cannot grip and the moonbuggy starts to fishtail slightly. Steffi's rear wheels have reached the obstacle. She has S-Ply-Springs from glass fibre, a material that Mercedes is using for their rear axles in the new S Class. Although Stefan is immediately regains control of the vehicle again, the momentary swerve of the front wheels causes an undeliberate sideways shift to Steffi. Her end of the vehicle twists sideways like an untamed mustang, riding on a single wheel for several tense seconds. After our off-road training she knows to stay cool and trust the moonbuggy's design and construction. Nevertheless she utters a loud "ooops". At 30° floor pitch the angle limiter in the torsion joint of the vehicle frame grips. The right rear wheel starts to deform menacingly sideways. Then Steffi is catapulted back into horizontal, both drivers go full throttle and speed away, after they brush a concrete block from the course with their left rear wheel.

The onlookers – at this point still few – hold their breath for a second. When they realize that all went well, they break into a loud and astonished laughter. Nevertheless, I'm not happy – we lost about 2 seconds here. In my head, torsion bar absorbers and double track rims with double upright profile flash up. But there is no time. I run straight over to meet them at the next position.

In the moon crater, I can see no mistakes nor faults. The vehicle delivers an outstanding performance. They drift around the concrete curves. This puts strain on the rear wheels that are not entirely finetuned yet for a Moonbuggy Race. Here we have to sit together with our tire sponsor "Schwalbe" and soup up "Big Betty" (a new profile at 3.75inch tire width). Until now we had used suitable tires for the rear bar, but they were not the sponsor's – not very sophisticated. "Schwalbe" will have to step it up in future to stay on board. The photos and videos are taken. I hurry onwards.

Max leaps over a hedge and positions his camera as agreed below the obstacles in front of the Saturn I rocket. When the buggy shoots by, there is a swerve on the obstacle and he recoils. I sense that both drivers have reached their limit and that we need a steering damper when the buggy is flying. When it's going uphill, I'm cheering them on. And I'm out of breath myself. I point the camera at the two and run after them.

When they reach the downhill track in front of the Space Shuttle, Steffi is catapulted up. Here we definitely have to increase the damping effect of the rear absorbers. Then they speed away to the sand obstacle. I don't worry about that one. That was never a real problem for us. I take a shortcut and try to meet them at the finishing line. I just about manage to take two pictures when they thunder through the finish with a loud honking of our 120psi (8 atmospheres = 118psig) pressure tank for our DEKRA-sponsored air horn (a superlight green plastic Sprite bottle).

Again, both drivers are absolutely exhausted and only listen to the time for their run. It is announced as, again, 3:31min. This is the exact same time as yesterday. Nobody knows what to think of this. Now, is that good or not?

The other teams make it through the course in quick succession. It's a festival without comparison. Wheels give way, tires burst with a loud pop, tie rods bend, chassis break up. Some of them make it through, even in the same time as we did – but none of them reach our total score. Then there is a fleet from India. Some call it "Rikshah-fleet". Many buggies are too high and not stable enough. I feel compelled to offer some advice, but have to get back to the laptop. The tips can wait til our Moonbuggy summer workshop.

I collect videos and photos. We had 6 cameras on duty! Then I start processing them, evaluate telemetry and upload first results online. The organizers have measured the race time exactly. With board video and telemetry I'm getting the same results independently – and in our case this is exact like an atomic clock. After 6 hours my head is smoking and I'm hungry. We're still number one.

I walk towards the buggy. It's 2pm. There are only the "bones" left of the German Moonbuggy. Everything is dismantled. I sit down in the tent and work away in the shade while the team is busy getting the buggy flight-ready. Terry gets the truck and everything is loaded. There a 6 suitcases left and a few parts of our "fighter jet".

We send the final emails off and are ready just before the awards ceremony. Good timing!

Now it's uncharted territory for us. According to the rules of the hosts we should receive two awards – "Winning Team" and "Best International Team Award". We already got this award, endowed by NASA Headquarters a year ago. But this year we have managed the best time amongst all international teams – even better: amongst all participating teams. I particularly remember the meeting I had with the director of the organizers, Sabrina Pearson, in the Marriot Hotel in December 2008. Then I reported the additional hurdles an international team has to take and asked for a small acknowledgment. I was heard – even at NASA administration. Prof. von Puttkamer himself, born in Leipzig, came from Washington and presented that award to us from Leipzig.

This award ceremony was different. We received an award for "Winning Team", without getting a receipt like the US teams, which is the actual purpose of this award. The regulations for "Best International Team" were apparently changed without notification. Another team got that award. Also, we were very surprised when the "Most Improved Award" was this year endowed with a cash price of $250 for the US team. We received this award last year, but had to pay €50 customs for it – without a cash price, although it was presented by the same founder, "Jacobs Industries".

The assumption is starting to form that the hosts are not yet ready to meet the immense increase in international demand (caused and promoted by NASA HQ) of the Moonbuggy Race. There is a real need for support so as to avoid a loss of sophistication of the race. I am in the process of thinking how I can assist in this respect as an integrated adviser. We really need to reduce the progression of international participants without damping their enthusiasm. We need continental rounds. We can take care of Europe and Asia, but not more.

For this to work, the hosts need to be prepared to share reputation and workload, as the NASA values suggest.



Huntsville Times:





Space Pragmatism:


ddp (german press agency):

German Press in english:

Freie Presse:

German Spacenet:

LVZ-online (Leipzig):

Info-TV Leipzig (same as channel 31):



Start-Up Magazine, Germany:

chamber for handicraft:,0,1942.html

1 comment:

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