- Cullman, Alabama


May 26, 2014

Cullman Area Career Center students excel at Mars Rover Challenge

When Tim White came to Cullman Area Career Center from Huntsville Center of Technology in the fall of 2013, he brought with him an idea and a determination to see that idea come to fruition.

That idea involved a multi-craft project that brings people to the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center from all over the world to compete in what was previously called the Moon Buggy Race, but is now known as the Mars Rover Challenge.

White, who teaches precision machining, had competed before, knew the ropes and thought he had a good chance to win with the team he put together at the Career Center here in Cullman. Previously, his Huntsville team had won first place in 2006 and 2007, and again in 2009, so he was eager to get back in the race with a Cullman team this year.

One of the objectives was that the buggy had to be as light as possible. They canvassed the campus searching for students who might be interested to come and hear more about the project. The other criterion was that the Mars Rover be powered by humans.

Stephanie McClure who teaches health sciences is the faculty sponsor and helped with the selection of team members. “We chose the girls who could peddle the fastest,” they laughed.

He explained to the eager students that the obstacle course, built to simulate the terrain on Mars, would be difficult, and that it would require stamina and determination. The students were up for the challenge.

The team had to be physically fit, so they began to dedicate more of their time to working out, running and lifting weights. White and McClure hope to see a physical training program result from this project.

“We got started late,” White said. “So we scrambled to get everything together, get the kids who were interested, and the materials we needed. “Our first goal was to get the team on track. Following that, we gathered donated materials from machining and welding shops such as Mach II in Battleground, and American Alloy and Industrial Fabricating, both in Huntsville. We couldn’t have done it without their help and generosity,” said White.

The project involved the use of various subjects that the students, depending on their curriculum, might take each day, including math, science, engineering, precision machining, welding, carpentry and auto body repair. Students from Cullman County high schools and Cullman High School were involved, utilizing precision machining, welding, collision repair and engineering skill sets. The drivers for the buggy were students from JROTC, culinary arts, and health science. Almost the whole school was involved, with the rest of the students and faculty cheering them on.

They collected bicycle parts, ball bearings, aluminum tubing, welding rods, argon gas, and something called “chromoly” tubing to construct the rover.

Four of the six team members were seniors. “They really didn’t know what to expect,” laughed White. “But they got excited about the project, and when we finally got to the event, they really got into it.”

Once the big day came, the kids were pumped, in fact, they were anxious because they couldn’t seem to sit still. There were two teams, for a total of six members, all from various schools in Cullman County. “Two would ride the rover, a boy and a girl, and the others were on standby.”

They named their vehicle the Red Rover, in reference to Mars being known as the Red Planet. In shirts that entreated, “Red Rover, Red Rover, Please Don’t Flip Over,” the team proudly stood, ready for the competition to begin.

No longer were the huge pneumatic tires in evidence as they had been in the Moon Race. Now, the main objective of the vehicles is to be lightweight enough that they can be carried by two people if there is a mechanical problem, or if the terrain becomes too difficult to travel on. “They would be riding over a simulated Mars landscape, mainly old tires covered with sand and gravel,” White explained.

“Nothing brings out the best in people like a good competition,” declared White. There were 98 teams in the 2014 competition. The first attempt was a letdown — the Red Rover buggy broke a chain. Not to be deterred, Braxton Armstrong dragged the buggy and his co-pilot, Hadyn Ford, across the finish line to complete the race.

The Cullman team spent approximately $2,700 on the Red Rover. White heard more than one NASA representative say that it was the best looking vehicle in the competition.

The German team brought their $21,000 Mars Rover into the country in suitcases and assembled it here. According to White, Puerto Rico is another big-time competitor in this simulated race, along with India.

“If you are one of the U.S. teams, you just have to register, (each U.S. school can send two teams) but the foreign countries can only send five teams,” White explained.

This year’s winning team came from the United States. Reno, Nevada, took home the first place prize of $3,000. “They had been training for six months before the race, and they had a lighter buggy than ours” said White.

The Cullman team took seventh place, and was proud to have placed that high, especially in view of their late start. “Next year we will know more about what to expect,” said White, philosophically. “Basically, we need to shave some weight off of the vehicle, and we need to start training sooner.”

Already at work designing the next Cullman Mars Rover, the team will need new members because four of the six were seniors this time. They also need engineering expertise, and materials.

If you would like to be a part of the 2015 team, contact Tim White at Cullman Area Career Center.

A video of the Mars Rover Challenge is available at the following link:

(The Career Center part of the race starts at 1:40:55)

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