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Engineering Students Place First in NASA Lunar Wheel Design Competition

A team of mechanical engineering students from Old Dominion University's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology won the inaugural lunar wheel design competition held at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston earlier this month.

The students - who comprise the senior level Project Design and Management course taught by Stacie Ringleb, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and advised by Colin Britcher and Robert Ash, professors of mechanical and aerospace engineering - have worked since January to design and build new wheels that could be used for future missions to the moon and Mars.

The ODU students competed against engineering students from the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. To test their capabilities, the wheels were mounted on a John Deere Gator RSX utility vehicle and underwent field tests at NASA Johnson Space Center's Rock Yard.

The Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts - Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition was sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace.

"It was such a great experience, working on a project like this from scratch," said Sarah Hunter, 25, of Tecumseh, Mich., student team leader for the project. "It really was the whole, real-world experience, dealing with builders, suppliers, manufacturers. It was a really well-rounded experience."

Hunter was one of four ODU engineering students who traveled to Houston for the competition. Joining her were Ryan Carteris, 22, of Virginia Beach; Marie Ivanco, 31, from France; and Tyler Scrivner, 23, from Japan.

Ringleb and Britcher said the entire team worked well together throughout the two-semester-long project, for which the students were able to take part in a design process from concept through manufacturing, testing and design modifications, and ultimately deliver four functional wheels. Britcher said the team members made the most of a unique opportunity, which has opened some doors for themselves and for ODU.

Other team members included Amanda Gasparik, 30, from Pittsburgh; Luke Twum-Ampofo, 24, from Chesapeake; Michael Serra, 23, from Lorton, Va.; Mariel Gonzalez, 22, from Woodbridge, Va.; and JaMahl Sapp, 22, from Richmond, Va.

The ODU team spent months creating a set of simplistic, lightweight, easy-to-build wheels, which they fittingly named "Monarch Wheels."

At the 2013 Lunar Wheel Roll-Off, teams demonstrated their wheels' capabilities in a simulated planetary environment under the supervision of NASA judges. The utility vehicle traversed up and down gravel slopes, over lava rocks and through deep mason sand, gravel pits and craters. During this testing, some ellipses of the Monarch Wheels began to fatigue at welded joints, but the ODU team was able to complete all aspects of the course.

The RASC-AL competition also included a technical paper and oral presentation. The judges took all three components into consideration, and ultimately named ODU as the first-place team.

Because of their outstanding performance, members of the ODU team were invited to continue collaboration with NASA to refine the Monarch Wheel.

During their time at the Johnson Space Center, the students had a chance to drive NASA's Space Exploration Vehicle throughout the Rock Yard, and toured other facilities to see various space-related projects, such as the Robonauts.

"It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Hunter said.

Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts - Academic Linkage is a student design competition that is sponsored by NASA and managed by the National Institute of Aerospace. RASC-AL was formed to provide university-level engineering students with the opportunity to design human-scale architecture concepts based on NASA engineering challenges, as well as offer NASA access to new research and design projects.

For more information about the NASA lunar wheel design competition, visit the event website at https://www.nianet.org/RASCAL-wheeldesign2012/index.aspx.

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