By Evelyn Boswell
Three Montana State University graduates who were part of a team that won a national NASA-sponsored robotics contest last year will return to the Kennedy Space Center this week to watch the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour.
While a new team prepares for this year’s NASA competition, former undergraduates Jennifer Hane, Chris Ching and Ben Hogenson, along with faculty advisers Brock LaMeres, Hunter Lloyd and Ahsan Mian, will view the April 29 launch from the NASA Causeway, LaMeres said.
Expected to watch from other VIP areas are President Obama and his family, as well as Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who is recovering from a gunshot wound. Her husband, Mark E. Kelly, is commanding the shuttle.
The launch is currently set for 3:47 p.m. Eastern time Friday. If the launch is delayed, the MSU group will reschedule their flights home, LaMeres said. He said the launch could be postponed 24 hours at a time, up to three times, before it is rescheduled completely.
Tickets to the launch were part of MSU’s prize for winning NASA’s first Lunar Regolith Excavator Student Competition last May. The Montana Space Grant Consortium is assisting the former students with transportation costs, LaMeres said.
Hane, Hogensen and Ching — all graduates from MSU’s College of Engineering — were part of an eight-person team that built a robot, called Montana MULE. The robot dug almost 48 pounds of regolith, or simulated moon dirt, in 15 minutes to defeat robots from 21 other colleges and universities, including much larger universities such as Virginia Tech, Iowa State University and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. The competition took place in a “lunarena” just outside of the Astronaut Hall of Fame.
This year’s team from MSU includes Charlie Ferguson and Chad Willett of Billings, Joe Stack and Kris Bengtson of Bozeman, Donovan Ferrin of Fairfield, Terrell Thomason of Miles City, Steve Iobst of Yellowstone National Park, and Justin Krohn of Kent, Wash. All but Stack plan to go to Florida for the competition. Stack, who flies a Black Hawk helicopter with the Army National Guard, said he will spend time with his family before heading to Iraq in late May.
The team built a new robot, called Montana MULE 2, that will compete May 26 and 27 in NASA’s second Lunar Regolith Excavator Student Competition at the Kennedy Space Center. Incorporating the best features of last year’s robot, it is designed for strength and speed, LaMeres said. The goal is to have the robot travel twice across the “lunarena” instead of once and pick up 50 kilograms of simulated moon dirt per trip. That would total more than 200 pounds and would be more than four times as much as MSU’s robot carried to win last year.
Anything can happen during competition, however, LaMeres said. Calling it a nerve-racking experience, LaMeres said even one loose wire can keep a robot from moving, effectively putting it out of the competition. Besides that, the number of competitors has ballooned to more than 50 U.S. and international teams.
photo: John Ritter, in this 2010 photo, observed MSU’s robot before accompanying it to the Kennedy Space Center for a NASA-sponsored contest. Since MSU won the competition, the team received tickets to return this year and watch the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour. (MSU photo by Jackson Harrison).
Evelyn Boswell is with the MSU News Service.