Fernando Cuellar dreams of being an architect. But the 19-year-old Kennewick student figured he could learn a thing or two from helping build a moon buggy for a NASA-sponsored race.
Both involve design and materials science, as well as problem-solving, said Cuellar, who attends the Columbia Basin College High School Academy.
“I’m excited; it goes with what I want,” he said.
Cuellar is one of four students and two advisers heading to Huntsville, Ala., next week to compete in the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge.
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It’s the third year the academy, which works with at-risk students and dropouts, has created a human-powered rover designed by students.
While the program’s past rovers haven’t always fared well at the international competition, academy teachers and officials said victory isn’t the real prize.
“I’ve seen great pride. Their confidence increase. They’ve said they feel they can take on the world” as a result of the work on the rover, said Leonor de Maldonado, the academy’s director.
The challenge, offered by NASA for more than 25 years, is aimed at inspiring students to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology while also helping develop ideas for human exploration of the solar system.
Students from high school up through college can compete and must meet strict guidelines, such as being able to pack the rover into a 5-foot-cubic crate, while meeting the rigors of quick assembly and durability.
Prizes will be awarded to the top three teams in the high school and college divisions. Last year’s winners took home $3,000.
Adviser Jerry Hombel, who also teaches at the academy, said the first rover that students entered in 2013 broke in half during the competition. Last year’s model weighed nearly 300 pounds and was the second-heaviest on the track, making it tough work to haul it quickly to the starting line.
This year, the academy’s rover is made of lightweight aluminum and weighs 200 pounds but still can fold neatly in half for transport.
Its two riders sit back-to-back and use foot pedals to power it. Cuellar noted that this year teams had to make sure the tires didn’t contain any compressed air. Instead, they were made from cut metal rods and hard rubber.
While the academy students fabricated the tires and some other components, Hombel said they relied on CBC welding instructor Phil Ponn and some of his students to put most of the rover together because of the level of technical skill needed.
“It’s a lot more sophisticated this year,” Hombel said. “We asked our kids to think outside the box and they did more than that.”
Now it will be up to Cuellar and fellow students Rebecca Dorris, 18; Melissa Conner, 17, and Roger Vargas, 17, with Hombel and fellow adviser Jennifer Peterson, to make it perform on sand, hillsides and rocky terrain.
“We always think we have a chance,” Hombel said. “The course is tough.”