Skip to main content

KNOXVILLE—For six weeks, a team of four University of Tennessee, Knoxville, students worked with old bicycle parts, scrap metals and little engineering expertise inside a garage to build a moonbuggy, a simulation of the lunar rovers used by the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 astronauts.

“There have been mixed reactions from people when they hear that we are building a moonbuggy,” said Kevin Thaisen, an earth and planetary sciences doctoral student who oversaw the project. “Some ask ‘why?’, while others are very interested and want a ride.”

Why? To race in NASA’s 19th annual moonbuggy race April 13 and 14 at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. The race was founded by their mentor Larry Taylor, distinguished professor of earth and planetary sciences.

The contest has grown to feature 90 high school and college teams from countries around the world, including Canada, India, Germany, Russia, Italy, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. The UT team came in eighth in the college division.

The past UT moonbuggies were designed by engineering students, but this year’s moonbuggy was designed by two geology majors Kathy Moore and Michelle Pewitt, Nathan Keeney, a biomedical engineering major, and Thaisen.

The contest is not for the faint of heart. It requires pedaling a couple-hundred pound buggy over a half-mile course mimicking the moon’s surface.

“I must admit that the impacts that occurred at the beginning of most obstacles were almost painful, but the steering and powertrain performed very well,” Keeney said. “Neither Kathy nor I are in the best of shape, so, needless to say, peddling a 200 pound hunk of steel over a half-mile obstacle-riddled course was far from easy. That said, I would not have traded the experience for the world.”

The approximately half-mile course designed by Taylor includes seventeen obstacles simulating lunar craters, rocks, ridges, inclines, and soil.

The contest’s goal is for the two-person—one-male, one-female—human-powered buggy to achieve the fastest vehicle assem¬bly and race times, while avoiding penalties on a grueling course. The unassembled buggy must fit into a box four feet high, four feet wide and four feet tall—dimension requirements similar to those for the original Lunar Roving Vehicle. The UT team took less than thirty seconds to assemble its buggy and less than nine minutes to traverse the course. A video of competitors on the course can be viewed at

“I think that the real takeaway from the experience is all about the teamwork,” said Thaisen. “We set a goal and set out to achieve it, and we learned a lot about trial and error in engineering. Everyone worked together to flesh out ideas, some that were good, some that were not so good and had to be reconsidered, but in the end everything worked well.”

Taylor and Frank Six, a colleague from the Marshall Space Flight Center, got the idea for the contest in 1994 after observing the positive and negative aspects of the lunar rover on Apollo 17. Taylor, who is UT’s representative of the Tennessee Space Grant Consortium which promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outreach and education, decided a moonbuggy race would be a valuable outreach activity to teach students to troubleshoot and solve problems.

Taylor hopes more high school students get involved, because at this level, there are still strong ties with the parents, who join into such an endeavor. And it gives the students a better appreciation of their STEM studies and introduces them to space science and engineering.

Funding for UT’s moonbuggy is supplied by the Tennessee Space Grant Consortium, which promotes space and science education on all levels throughout Tennessee. To discuss establishing a new Moon Buggy team, contact Professor Taylor at For more information about the consortium in general, visit the Tennessee Space Grant Consortium.

For more information about the actual moonbuggy race, visit the website.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460,