West Plains, Mo. High school and college students in Missouri and Kansas are preparing to peddle their homemade moon buggies over a lunar-like landscape course.
South Central Career Center in West Plains, Carthage High School and Lafayette County High School are among the Missouri teams competing against dozens of other high schools from across the country at NASA's 10th annual Great Moonbuggy Race on April 11-12 in Huntsville, Ala.
The event, held at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, also included a competition for colleges and universities. Pittsburg State University in Kansas won the college division in 2001 and plans to compete again this year. Frontenac High School in Kansas also plans to be there.
For much of the school year, 16-year-old Mike Phillips has been spending eight to 10 hours a week working on Carthage High's machine.
With the competition looming, the six-person team has been thoroughly testing their vehicle, which looks like a cross between a bicycle and a go-cart.
They've gone to the city park, up hills, over gravel roads, through mud pits. For the most part, it turned out better than expected; the team mainly had to adjust the vehicle's suspension and steering, Phillips said.
"It's a blast, with lots of good people around you," he said.
That's the hope of the event organizers, who want students to work together and put their math and science skills to good use.
"Its purpose is to give high school and college students the opportunity to experience some of the things the original astronauts did," said Durlean Bradford, event coordinator with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
To compete, teams must design and build a human-powered vehicle that occupies no more than a 4-foot cube before assembly. Then a male-female team must power the vehicle through the half-mile obstacle course as fast as possible.
Funding can sometimes be an issue, as the vehicles can cost $1,000 or more to produce, and then teams have to travel to Alabama for the competition.
Carthage, for example, bought bicycle parts, shock absorbers and special chrome moly tubing for its 80-pound vehicle, said Wayne Christian, a science teacher at the school. The group built a vehicle last year but didn't have the money to go to the competition.
This year, though, the Carthage R-9 Foundation is funding the project.
Christian likes to see the students pick up the tools and create something from nothing.
"It's an authentic experience," he said. "You start with absolutely nothing but raw material. It's an amazing transformation."
At the South Central Career Center in West Plains, six seniors are still working on their vehicle. It has provided hands-on training for many disciplines at the school: Technical drafting students drew up plans; welders and machinists worked on the frame; graphic design students created donor logos.
For its vehicle this year, the school sought donations of materials and money from the community, said Charlotte Goodson, public information officer.
"Local businesses have been very, very supportive," she said, noting that the local Kiwanis Club chapter had been the largest local donor.