Cape Girardeau Central High School students prepare for NASA moonbuggy contest

Thursday, March 17, 2011
Mary Dohogne and Lars Monia take a short spin on the "moon buggy" they are building at the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center. (Fred Lynch)

The asphalt parking lot was slick late Tuesday morning. Conditions were less than optimal for a moonbuggy ride across the surface of the parking lot at Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center, but it was getting near zero hour for Lars Monia and Mary Dohogne -- and they need all the driving practice they can get.

A near miss with a compact car almost proved the point.

"We're getting the breaks down," Monia called out from the mist.

The senior at Cape Girardeau Central High School, it could be said, is the nerve center of this operation; he's spent much of the past four years designing, drafting, engineering and building the four-foot-wide by seven-foot-long pedal-powered car. He had help. Dohogne, several students in instructor Collin Sheridan's Project Lead the Way course and others from Career and Technology Center-based design and welding classes, put their brains and sweat into the vehicle.

And now it's come down to this.

On April 1 and 2, Monia and Dohogne will join 84 teams of future engineers competing at the 18th annual NASA Great Moonbuggy Race in Huntsville, Ala. The event challenges high school and college students to design, build and race lightweight, human-powered rovers -- moonbuggies -- that address many of the same engineering challenges dealt with by Apollo-era lunar rover developers in the late 1960s. In fact, July 31 marks the 40th anniversary of NASA's first lunar rover making its inaugural excursion on the moon's surface.

Students from 22 states and Puerto Rico and challengers from six countries will compete in this year's contest.

Dohogne wants another shot after last year's troubles.

"There's a lot of places on the course we didn't get to last year that I'm excited to see what our moonbuggy can handle to defeat those obstacles," said Dohogne, also a senior at the high school, who wants to make engineering a career.

Last year, in the center's first go at the three-quarter-mile competitive course, the moonbuggy broke down, and Dohogne almost fell off.

Monia said the kinks have been worked out of the design and manufacture.

He learned a lot about both in working on the vehicle. He spent nearly 50 hours alone cutting and shaping the moonbuggy's brass beveled gears.

"That was my baby last year, along with the design for the suspension," Monia said. "We had to custom build all the teeth into our gears."

The 18-year-old has plans to attend Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., and ultimately pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. The skills he learned in designing the moonbuggy should be helpful in his academic pursuit, but the work he did with his hands could prove invaluable.

"I learned a lot about manufacturing," he said. "It was great to learn what's possible."



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