Roving Reporter

We Road-Test Students’ New Moon Buggy Concept at NASA

A nearsighted writer isn’t the logical choice to take the wheel of a half-million-dollar lunar rover prototype funded by the agency that gave us “one giant leap for mankind.”

But on a gravel track at nearby NASA Goddard Space Flight Center one spring afternoon, four UMD engineering students and one veteran faculty member wrestled me into a 75-pound space suit and gave me a (hopefully non-) crash course on driving the one-seat all-terrain vehicle they had dedicated three years to building—not to drive publicity, but to steer closer to perfection.

Developed under NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, the prototype could help inspire the finished product: a vehicle for astronauts to one day navigate the pockmarked surface of the moon as they build a base to slingshot human explorers to Mars.

The UMD rover is capable of climbing 30-degree slopes—a feat the team tested on a hill outside one of the university’s engineering buildings—rotate 360 degrees, and travel on extended journeys, thanks to a battery located under Baja 500-worthy 30-inch suspension coils.

But what’s unique about this set of wheels is how it lightens astronauts’ load—which, trust me, is heavy—by replacing the support systems traditionally lugged in a backpack with an umbilical life-support arm. Hooked directly into the suit, it offers longer stretches of exploration, ample freedom of movement and less fatigue.

“It’s been amazing to see what they’ve done here,” says Brent Barbee, a NASA flight dynamics engineer and lecturer at UMD. “I find it really innovative.”

Hoisting myself into the driver’s seat, operating the controls, even fastening the seatbelt are all drastically different experiences in a bulky spacesuit, which was sort of the point of the test drive. A quick flip of a finger swiveled the vehicle’s enormous mag wheels (ordered from a tractor supply company) left and right, quickly veering me toward a drainage ditch; but within minutes I was effortlessly cruising at a casual 10 mph along the edge of Goddard’s property in Greenbelt, much to the astonishment of a groundskeeper at a neighboring apartment building.

The team, overseen by aerospace engineering Professor David Akin, will take lessons learned from the test run back to the lab for tweaks before it demos the rover to more NASA representatives later this spring, with someone else at the controls.

“We are constantly working, constantly trying to improve it,” says doctoral candidate Charlie Hanner, one of the project leads. “Hopefully we can contribute something that’s never been done before.”


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