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Moon Buggy
Seniors Lindsay Currier and Nate Dowd practice lunar maneuvering. Photo by Doug Prince

Moon Ride

By David Brooks

Five UNH students went to the moon and back in April -- well, sort of -- and they didn't even get a T-shirt. They did, however, get a great experience and the chance to put "moon buggy builder" on their résumés.

Senior engineering students Matt Borsa, Rob Lamontagne, Ryan Carroll, Nate Dowd and Lindsay Currier made up the UNH team in NASA's seventh annual Great Moon Buggy Race at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The contest challenges college and high school engineering students to design and build a two-person-powered buggy and race it over a simulated lunar surface. The UNH team built an unusual three-wheel, pedal-powered buggy with rear-wheel drive and side-by-side seats as their senior project. They came in fourth out of 30 schools, just missing out on the fleece jackets given to the top three positions -- foiled by a collision with a rock.

They started out well, clocking an assembly time of five seconds and easily passing the size limit (buggies must fold inside a four-foot cube). "We went conservatively on the first run, because we didn't want to break anything," Borsa said. "But the second run we went all-out and were well on track to a second place finish, maybe even first place, when we crashed." The buggy was making a turn in the "crater" area when a front wheel hit a rock, flipping the vehicle on its side. Its two drivers righted it, only to have a wheel fall off moments later. The escapade did win the team the Crash and Burn Award for the most entertaining mishap.

Borsa thinks they may have erred by using only one shock absorber, in back, to save weight. "It's possible that the trade-off didn't work. (Front suspension) keeps the thing more stable over bumps," he said.

But overall, Lamontagne and Borsa agree the team met its original objectives. "We set out to build something simple," Lamontagne says. "A lean and mean buggy." Weighing in at 85 pounds, the UNH buggy was far lighter than the others, which ranged from about 120 to 350 pounds. The UNH design was also unusual in its use of three wheels. A few other entries with three wheels were built like a traditional tricycle. The UNH buggy had a third wheel in the back, steered with a tiller-like lever. The design created quite a stir, Lamontagne says. "You'd hear people saying things like, 'Did you see New Hampshire?'" So was the long drive -- over 20 hours each way -- worth it?

"Absolutely. This is the most educational experience I've had since coming to UNH," Borsa says. "Nothing compares to actually designing something, getting it built, making your systems work."

The moon buggy team was supervised by UNH mechanical engineering professor Todd Gross, who says "all the credit" goes to the students.

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