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Students Create Rover for NASA Competition

June 21, 2021 - 2 minute read

Students posing with the rover

When Susan Eschelbach ’21, a physics major, learned that NASA had created a competition for high school and college teams to design and build human-powered rovers capable of surmounting various obstacles, she agreed to assemble a team of  Concordia University Irvine students for a first-of-its-kind effort on campus.

“NASA is looking for innovation and new ways to think about designing a human-powered rover vehicle that would allow Martian astronauts to move significant distances,” says faculty sponsor John Kenney. “The student participants from Concordia were of a very high caliber. This was a culminating senior project that fascinated them and grabbed hold of their imaginations and told them, we can do this at the highest levels.” 

Eschelbach led the four-person team in an August-to-April schedule which gave time for setbacks as the team conceived, drew, then 3-D-modeled and built the rover. They learned to cut and weld aluminum, create suspension and steering systems, and much more. 

They also had to finance it themselves, and the team raised $10,000 to buy parts and components. 

In the middle of the project, the team went through what Kenney calls “a period of disappointment, frustration and wrong turns.” 

“The biggest challenge was when we had to change designs and ideas halfway through the project, especially the steering,” says Eschelbach. “By the end we were on our thirteenth iteration of a steering design. The challenge was to be flexible and not crushed when your first design doesn’t work. You have to hold things really loosely instead of being a perfectionist. Things don’t act like you thought they would act or carry the load you thought they would carry.” 

The final resulting frame resembles an hourglass, with a hinge where the two triangles meet, allowing it to make tight turns. “The steering system of this rover is absolutely amazing,” Kenney says. It is propelled by two pedaling people, one in front and one back, whose power is combined by an integral-geared hub. 

“They did not win the final prize but got really good reviews for innovation and execution,” Kenney says. “Winning was actually completing the project. It took a tremendous amount of effort on their part. They learned how to fundraise, to find sponsors, to engage specific experts when they got stuck — even go to a local bike shop to learn more about how gears work.” 

Eschelbach says she learned much about leading a team, and picked up skills such as 3-D modeling which will serve her well in graduate school for engineering. 

“This is the first time our school has done something like this, so it’s a huge step forward,” she says. 

At present, the rover sits on display in a public area of the newly-remodeled Engineering and Computer Science section of the Library Arts & Theatre building.

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