By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
A three-time world champion from his stint working for Huntsville City Schools in the 2000s, precision machining instructor Tim Wyatt is bringing his Moon buggy expertise to Cullman for NASA’s new rover competition.
Dozens of students at the Cullman Area Career Center are working together to build a makeshift Mars rover to compete in NASA’s first-ever Human Exploration Rover Challenge, which is replacing the annual Great Moonbuggy Race the agency has held for several years.
Per the competition, a two-seater craft will be driven by students across an obstacle course during the Rover Challenge, hosted at the U. S. Space & Rocket Center on April 10-12, and must survive and arduous course designed to mimic the surface of Mars. Students are working now to build the rover from scratch.
While in Huntsville, Wyatt worked with teams that won the top Moon buggy prize in 2006, 2007 and 2009. He’s now a precision machining instructor at the Cullman career center, and is helping organize a school-wide project for the inaugural rover competition that includes virtually every department at the campus.
“The biggest benefit is it gives these students some real-world experience,” Wyatt said. “They get to see what’s going on out in industry, and how you have to work together, and they literally design and build this thing from nothing.”
Departments ranging from welding, to drafting, to machining and wood-working are all pitching in to design and create the different components required to make the rover. They’re also designing some components specifically for the rover, including a new differential to help with speed and turning.
“There’s a big push for these types of crossover projects, so students can learn how all these skills connect,” building construction teacher Jerry Jones said. “Our kids have been really excited to be involved.”
More than 20 students from schools across the county and city are involved in the multicraft project. For inspiration, Wyatt has a finished competition buggy he’d helped build in Huntsville on display at the career center, which students are using to practice their rover-driving skills.
Braxton Armstrong, a Good Hope student who piloted the older buggy Wednesday, said the competition offers students a different avenue to implement the skills they learn at the center.
“It’s interesting, unique and really hands-on,” he said.
Work is well underway on the career center’s first rover, with the bottom frame and suspension already in place, though the team is pushing against a ticking clock to make the April deadline. Faculty sponsor Stephanie McClure noted the recent federal government shut down delayed the release for contest rules, while recent weather days have cost the team approximately a week of work time.
“They’re working hard and doing their best to get it done,” she said.
Though Wyatt’s old competition buggy weighs in at approximately 215 pounds, the team is aiming for a different design that will hopefully reduce the weight to 150 pounds for the new rover. The only specifications required are that the two pilots are able to carry the rover 20 feet on their own, and that it fold up to fit in a 5-foot by 5-foot cube space. The specifications were inspired by potential weight and travel limitations that would affect a real rover if it were ever carried into space for actual use.
The design must also feature space for a radio and other tools that would be required in real-world use. To help with those parts, the drafting department is designing the faux radio box and printing it with an on-campus 3D printer.
“We’re working on drawing solids now, and what this does is give them a chance to work something up then literally see it with the 3D printer,” drafting instructor Rick Garrison said.
Though the international competition can be extremely competitive, Wyatt said he hopes Cullman’s cross-departmental approach can give the career center team an edge when the local rover takes the course later this year.
“It’s a major undertaking to do something like this and it takes everyone working together,” Wyatt said.
Any interested parents can get a look at the unfinished rover at the career center’s open house Thursday night, from 5-7 p.m.
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 134.