At the Rhode Island School of Design’s NASA-sponsored industrial design studio, the evidence of late-night activity is aplenty: granola bar wrappers, an empty Orangina bottle, and a crumpled potato-chip bag.
For the past three months, 15 students in an advanced design class have been working long hours to construct a moonbuggy that can stand up to the lunar elements. And in April, the RISD team will compete against squads from some 70 schools spanning the globe in NASA’s 17th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The charge: design a two-person, human-powered buggy — a high-tech bicycle, of sorts — to traverse a 0.7-mile course filled with crater-like holes, 30-degree inclines, and miscellaneously strewn moon objects like rocket boosters and fuel tanks.
The 12-week process has been tough on pillow time. In the days leading up to last week’s final critique, or “crit,” teammates averaged a little more than two hours of sleep per night. “I left at 7:30 this morning and came back for 9,” said senior Fiona Rupert. “When you’re into a project, you keep working.”
And slacking isn’t tolerated. A shift schedule tacked up on the studio wall notes when team members are late. “Passive aggressive action is the best way to get stuff done,” said Rupert. And if a designer is a no-show for a shift, the passive part of the aggression melts away: teammates make a steady stream of calls to the offender’s cell phone.
This is the first time RISD (or any design school) has entered the competition — a contest dominated by schools with strong engineering departments, Brown University among them. “With design, it’s easy to say we don’t do anything that works, it’s all aesthetic,” said Rupert. “That’s why this project is exciting . . . We can prove design is functional.”
Still, this is RISD. So there are plenty of flourishes. Students haven’t landed on a color for the buggy, but Rupert is most excited about the “super sexy” carbon fiber seats students cooked at 85 degrees to give them a slick sheen. And students decided early on to create a tri-wheeled vehicle as opposed to a four-wheeled roadster.
Students say half of the buggies break down in the dust before reaching the finish line. To make sure they aren’t part of the failed 50 percent, students have “overbuilt” the 170-part buggy. They’ve used acetylene torches to secure joints. Some pieces are held together with brass. The team has mounted chain guards to ensure the extreme riding conditions don’t throw the me-chanics out of line.
The RISD team wasn’t starting from scratch. There are some YouTube videos out there of buggies past. But most competitors keep a lid on their work. “We have little information,” said project manager Krisa Ryan.
Still, whatever its inexperience, RISD is hardly an underdog. The moonbuggy class is sponsored by NASA and Cannondale bicycle company, as well as local bike outfits and donors. There is money from the Rhode Island Space Grant, the local version of a nationwide, NASA-funded program designed to enhance science literacy at all levels of education. And to help with the design process, industrial design professor Michael Beresford brought in a NASA engineer to review design tactics. The team has until March to tweak the buggy.