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Students’ Moon rover replica arrives at Armstrong Air & Space Museum

Armstrong Air & Space Museum with lunar rover photo credit Michael Cole SpaceFlight Insider

The Lunar Rover replica takes its first test drive upon arrival at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on May 5. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

WAPAKONETA, Ohio — A group of engineering students from Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, arrived last week at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. While lots of people their age spend time with their heads under the hoods of hot rods, hoping to become fast and furious, this group drove up to the front door of the museum, at the dizzying speed of 10 miles per hour, in an Apollo Lunar Rover – a replica they built themselves. 

The students were marking the end of a three-year journey by delivering the rover to officials at the museum, where it will be used as an eye-catching showpiece for the museum’s public outreach activities. The museum that celebrates Wapakoneta’s hometown hero, Neil A. Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, is probably the perfect home for the rover.

The replica Lunar Rover, or Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle, is the product of a special program at ONU’s College of Engineering. The program is called Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS. The program presents teams of undergraduate engineering students with opportunities to design, build, and deploy real systems to solve engineering-based problems for local communities and education organizations. Their past projects have ranged from upgrading the scope of community websites, to a civil engineering project to move, restore, and display a historic church bell.

Engineering students from Ohio Northern University roll out their Lunar Rover replica at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum, in preparation for turning it over, with full rover-operator instructions, to officials at the museum. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

Engineering students from Ohio Northern University roll out their Lunar Rover replica at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum, in preparation for turning it over, with full rover-operator instructions, to officials at the museum. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

The Lunar Rover EPIC project was a unique one that had a precursor and one that owed its existence to a previous EPIC project for the Armstrong Air & Space Museum.

To add a display to the museum that expanded its attention to the story of Mars exploration, an EPIC project started in 2012 produced a 1/5 scale working model of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover.

Following that successful partnership, a new group of students met with museum director Chris Burton in 2014 to discuss other projects the students could possibly do for the museum, one of the ideas was a replica Apollo Lunar Rover.

“At first, the thought was that it would be just a static display,” Kurt Meyer, one of the engineering students on the project, told Spaceflight Insider. “And then it transformed into the thought that we could do a fully functional 1:1 scale replica of the NASA Lunar Rover.”

“They started talking about the idea of a full-sized, working Lunar Rover,” Armstrong Air & Space Museum Director Chris Burton told Spaceflight Insider. “And I said, can you guys really do this?”

The students answered that question when they delivered the rover replica to the museum on Thursday, May 5.

“It took them three years,” Burton said, “but it probably took NASA three years too!”

With the kind of can-do spirit that sent U.S. spacecraft, astronauts, and Lunar Rovers to the Moon in the first place, the students attacked the project with energy and determination. They were aided in the project by a group of professors, as well as the Dean of the ONU College of Engineering, Eric Baumgartner. Baumgartner knows a thing or two about rovers. During his time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, he spent eight months living on Mars-time as one of the drivers of the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity.

“The students were really dedicated to this project,” Baumgartner told Spaceflight Insider. “They took it on and were very serious. I was also able to take them up to the rover test labs at NASA Glenn (NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio) to let them see that.”

Engineering students and professors from Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, pose on the lawn of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum with the Lunar Rover replica they built for the museum. The students built the rover for the museum as an Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) project. It will be used in parades and other special programs for public outreach until an area for permanent display is built for it at the museum. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

Engineering students and professors from Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, pose on the lawn of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum with the Lunar Rover replica they built for the museum. The students built the rover for the museum as an Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) project. It will be used in parades and other special programs for public outreach until an area for permanent display is built for it at the museum. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

The students did some testing of their Lunar Rover when they delivered it to the museum staff. The gusty winds that afternoon proved to be too much for the umbrella-like antenna on the rover, so it was set aside and stowed. Of course, this was never an issue with the real rover on the Moon, where there is no wind (and virtually no appreciable atmosphere).

The students needed to keep the differences between the Earth and the Moon in mind at all times. Throughout the project, the students had to strike a balance between recreating the rover as accurately as possible, yet remembering that the replica had to be structurally functional for working in Earth’s gravity.

One important Earthly condition the replica needed to be prepared for is… parades. It will essentially become its own summer parade float and is likely to provide a lot of attention for the museum.

“That’s really where it fits,” Burton said. “Obviously, right now it is a great outreach piece. It’s a fantastic thing for special events. But physically there is not room for it in the museum today.”

For now, the rover replica must be stored at the museum in a garage, where it can be brought out for special events. However, a plan is in the works to give it a permanent place and display.

“They’ve introduced a bill (in the Ohio General Assembly) that lists the Armstrong Air & Space Museum as potentially receiving $900,000,” Burton said. “Hopefully, the general assembly and the governor will keep it where it is and approve it. We’ll find out next month.”

The Ohio capital budget bill that includes the funds for the museum has so far passed both the Ohio House and Senate Finance committees with the monies for the museum intact.

“If it passes, then that is exactly what it will be for – major physical improvements to the museum and additional space so that we can have more area for displays, like this one,” Burton said. “We’re an air and space museum that doesn’t have room for an aircraft or a spacecraft. So, at minimum, we need space for something as large as a small car. That’s what an air and space museum needs. There might be more opportunities in the pipeline. Another spacecraft might come our way. If that’s the case, we need to make sure we have enough space to accommodate something like that.”

The rover replica by the ONU students and the monies from the State of Ohio, and, hopefully, other monies in the future, are part of the museum’s effort to prepare for 2019, the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s stroll on the lunar surface.

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Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”

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