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NASA Rover Challenge: Student Engineering for Mars

BrasilStartSeventeen-year-old Rafaela Bastos of Niterói, Brazil, saw coverage of NASA’s Rover Challenge in the U.S. and never looked back.

Like all rookie contestants from around the world, she needed to recruit a team at her high school, Colegio Santa Terezinha, and find thousands of dollars to finance her dream — all in three months.

Bastos used crowdsourcing to fund the rover, a human-powered vehicle that carries two students. She and her teammates also competed on a game show, “Agora Ou Nunca,” to finance the freight charges to send the rover abroad and looked for sponsors to assist their travel. And so the Space Troopers got their shot at the title.

“I heard about this race in December, and I just knew we would go,” said Bastos, standing outside the NASA weld tent where Boeing and NASA welders were helping students to repair their rovers during the April 1 competition at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Each six-student team is responsible for building its own rover, and two course drivers — one male, one female — must be chosen from the team to navigate through a half-mile (0.8-kiliometer) obstacle course of a simulated extraterrestrial terrain of craters, boulders, ridges, inclines, crevasses and depressions.

“This is a brutal race course, and the rovers take a beating,” said NASA astronaut Mike Barratt, who spent the day with the racers. “In a very real-world experience, they are learning to design and build to NASA requirements for relatively unknown terrain and then repair their rovers real-time. There is real talent here to support our future space capabilities.”

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Students formed 99 high school and collegiate teams from around the U.S. and six other countries, and the race continues to grow in popularity. Boeing employee volunteers staffed the race as judges, safety inspectors and rover repair experts. They also provided bilingual support at the start line.

“I’ve seen the most amazing and innovative solutions come across the start line, and then you see how well they play out at the finish line,” said Vaishnav Krishnan, Boeing Space Launch System engineer and race judge. “These kids just don’t give up, even if they have to carry the rover across the line. We’ll need that kind of grit when our mission is to reach Mars and explore other worlds.”

Bastos’ rookie team didn’t take home any top prizes, but it did win two awards for the team’s work. Check out NASA’s race site for a list of awards.

Boeing, the prime contractor for the original lunar rover that went to the Moon for the Apollo missions, is lead sponsor for the race each year.