The Martians Have Landed

Space travel is fraught with risk. There’s the outbound voyage, long and boring (think Kansas), the terror of the unknown inter-planetary void and finally the touch down on the surface of ________(enter name of your favorite planet/moon).

Imagine if there were an asteroid or a pre-positioned docking station that could serve as a mid-trip “rest stop” to stretch your legs and check the tires on your space vehicle. Or stay awhile while NASA sends out a rescue vehicle.

There is such a place, and it bears a striking resemblance to a Target store. It’s in Dillon, Colorado where the Mars Rover mothership/trailer was towed when it lost its brakes coming out of the Eisenhower Tunnel last week.

En route to the University Rover Challenge in Utah, Alyssa McCarthy’s “Rove” group camped out in the Target parking lot to wait for rescue that came in the form of solar car team members John Schoeberle and Conner Kostelac. Timing was critical because they had to arrive in Hanksville, Utah in just two days.

While the Dodge rescue ship was prepared for launch/stripped of its warp-speed limiters the team used the time to rehearse the same actions they’d take in Utah so the “mission” would stay on schedule. While John and Conner streaked across the barren landscape of Kansas and eastern Colorado* a local garage (cash only) fixed the mothership’s brakes.

Local media caught wind of the impromptu base camp and wrote it up here. Target shoppers stopped by to talk to the Miners and see Zenith while store managers fretted about violating the city’s ban on camping. An S&T alum stopped by to offer encouragement and an old hippie couple showed up to ask for duct tape and coffee. Sorry, no coffee.

Ultimately the wanderers made it to Hanksville in time and did well, winning the new Phobos Division at the University Rover Challenge and were honored with the John Berenka Science Award. Read more a about it on the Rover team’s Facebook page.

*No law enforcement personnel were inconvenienced in the performance of this mission.

The Best Birthday Present EVER!

And the story behind it…

Let us first introduce to you, Richard Dalton, shop and safety operations manager at S&T’s Student Design and Experiential Learning Center.

Richard has a slightly mellow personality, but he shoulders tremendous responsibility at the center. He teaches dozens of technical and safety classes, oversees OrgSync and all the sophisticated software needed to design student projects, buys (or steals) and maintains a barn full of lathes, mills, grinders, welders, and composite layup equipment, machines that well-meaning (but inexperienced) students seem to trash as fast as he can fix it.

Richard also teaches truck/trailer drivers’ education classes after normal(?) duty hours. It’s a wonder he hasn’t burst a blood vessel trying to show students how to back up a 28-foot trailer, or park a big dually pickup truck. Stressful at best…

He’s a master mechanic, superb machinist and even built his own home. A computer/IT wizard, YouTube aficionado, and has been deployed to Afganistan with the Army Reserve.

DSC_7810His office is his inner sanctum, his personal retreat where few are welcome. It’s home to several video monitors, his personal tool set, and the occasional canoe when things get too crowded in the shop. It’s even been known to house a few hundred plastic Easter eggs lovingly placed where it’ll take him months to find them.


DSC_3246Many months ago, Richard’s very expensive and custom-fitted office chair went missing. He was very “close” to that chair and distraught when it disappeared, as similar chairs just wouldn’t “fit.” There were rumors it rolled away DSC_6536 (1) on its own, to go “find itself” and travel the world. Sightings were reported all over the western U.S., often in the vicinity of traveling S&T design teams it was said.
But it never resurfaced.

Fast forward to Irvine, California with the Solar House Design Team and their Nest Home at the Solar Decathlon; high-energy house reassembly under strict time constraints. Richard absolutely WOWED the students with his skills, enthusiasm and experience, and with his birthday on the horizon the students were desperate to show their appreciation to “’Mater,” as he’s known on campus. What to do?

The house has to be furnished, right? What if, just IF, they could find the errant furniture, wouldn’t it be great to bring it “home”? If they COULD recover it, how could they possibly sneak it into the Nest Home as a proper surprise? What on-hand equipment could they use?

Well, there IS that big crane sitting right outside, and since Richard (that’s him on the left) was busy talking……….

And THAT is the story of the best birthday present EVER!

P.S. Too bad the crane operator wouldn’t haul him up about 100 ft. Stupid OSHA rules…..

Toothpaste, Cheez-Its, and Sand, Oh, My!

News coming out of Hanksville, Utah, this week, while slow to find its way out of the desert, shows that all kinds of things can go wrong but it’s how students react that tells the story.

The Miners’ new carbon fiber and plexiglass wheel design has proven extremely successful in the loose desert soil/sand/dust, but we’ve not heard how it performed in the boulder fields.

Day one of this week’s Mars Society competition revealed a manufacturing flaw in Horizon’s gear system that threatened to knock S&T out of the points race. The 3D-printed plastic gears kept binding and jamming no matter what the Miners could do, so frantic messages were sent back to earth (Rolla). “Strip Phoenix of drive gears and send them out on an emergency (FedEx) mission to Mars (Hanksville)!”

Ground controllers pulled gears from last year’s Rover while the amazing folks at the S&T Library restarted their mothballed 3D-printers to produce even more parts. Simultaneously the team, echoing Apollo 13’s mantra of “Failure is not an option!” got down to business with what few tools they had on hand.

Maybe the gears were manufactured to too-tight tolerances for the job; maybe they needed more “slop” in the gear train. We’re not sure who came up with this amazing idea but they solved it by turning the Rover’s power against itself. Students made an abrasive compound of toothpaste mixed with sand, removed the load from the gears, packed the teeth with the goo and turned on the motors. That whitish mud did the job, polishing the gear surfaces just enough to clear up the problem. 800px-Cheez-It-Crackers How did the Cheez-It crackers come in to play? Best we can figure the cooking oil in the tasty little orange crackers served as the perfect “rinse and lube” that got Horizon back in full operation.

The Rover Challenge schedule helped, too. The temporary loss of the gear system didn’t hurt S&T’s performance in the first day’s Astronaut Assist task, and bought them time to experiment. Remarkably the team had solved the problem even before the parts from earth (Rolla) arrived overnight.

Given the time needed to send a real rescue package from earth to an actual Mars mission, astronauts/Martians would have to solve such problems in real time with only their wits and what the could scrounge from the space vehicle.

And that, Gentle Readers, is what experiential learning at Missouri S&T is all about.

Wanna know the latest? Check out the team’s Facebook page where they proudly announced they took 5th place out of 22 international teams, including a perfect 100% on Science!

Next on the docket? The S&T Mars Rover Team heads to Poland in September to take on one of the world’s best teams, the graduate student group that won last year’s Utah event.

Which begs the question, where will they find a desert in Poland?


FBRoverDSC_8404-2 The Fugitive Beach recreation facility, a few miles down Highway 72 from Rolla, often serves as Rolla’s analog for Mars. And that’s pretty convenient for some of S&T’s student design teams.

FB is an old quarry that’s been converted to a family-friendly place where people can swim, run obstacle courses, camp, hold family gatherings or just relax on a cool spring evening..

The place is a work in progress, meaning there are a few rough patches ideal for testing off-road robots. S&T’s Robot Competition FBVRobotDSC_8341
Team took their other-worldly excavator for a beach run, but struggled in the sand. That means a redesign of the power systems and more controllable wheels.
Just yards away from the robot team’s efforts the Mars Rover Design Team took their 3rd-year Rover to practice out of line-of-sight radio controlled functions. Horizon, the team’s 2015 design, sometimes moves like a hyper-caffeinated spider, so it can take a steady hand to keep it in line.

They sent it up the trail but suddenly lost the radio link, leaving the clattering machine free to go wherever FBChaseSUN_3420the terrain would take it. “HIT THE E-STOP!!! HIT THE E STOP!!!” echoed the frantic screams as Miners took off in hot and largely unsuccessful pursuit. Had it not been for the boulder it slammed into Horizon might have plunged down a cliff face to disaster.

Damage? Minimal. Aside from a broken wheel band everything is fine.

We’re laughing about it now, but it wasn’t funny then. Especially when an angry black Great Dane suddenly charged into the fray.

But that’s a story for another day…

Mars Rover Design Team Vaults From 10th To 2nd!

This time last year S&T’s first attempt at the International University Rover Challenge the veteran Polish team said “WOW! If this is what you bring in your first year, we can’t WAIT to see what you bring NEXT year!*”

Our Polish friends quickly found out as the Miners were nipping at their heels when the “Martian dust” had settled. S&T Mars Rover Design Team finished in second place out of 23 teams from all over the world. Team Poland, Hyperion, took a first place win this year, repeating their performance from the last competition. Consequently, the S&T MRDT is the best rover team in North America.

* The Poles’ words are paraphrased since they wouldn’t be safe for general consumption, but we assure you, they were meant as a sincere compliment. 🙂

Mars Rover Design Team Update

Hanksville, UT. Friday, May 30, 2014 12:26 AM
After a successful day of testing on Wednesday, the sun and the team got up early to set up for competition Thursday. The morning was spent in the normal routine. The cooking crew made breakfast while the EE experts continued to work with the troublesome power board. Its serviceable but not performing to the expectations they intended. Still, it does what it is supposed to do.

The astronaut assistance task was the work of the day. The team left Hanksville about 11:00 a.m. for their 12:20 start time. On site, they were ready to spring into action as soon as the officials gave the green light. In the meantime, a reporter from a Salt Lake City television station interviewed CEO MIchael Brouchard and the S&T PR Lead then proceeded to get footage of MRDT as they attempted to complete the task.

The task: when time was called, MRDT sprung into action. They swarmed the truck to get antenna, rover, base station, generator, wires, and even the director’s chair in place for the task. First they had to set up their 24 ft antenna in the “martian desert”, not an easy task to stake the guide wires into the hard desert floor in gusty winds. But, with lots of effort and a couple of broken parts, they got it up in the air, a little list to the south, but in perfect position.

The other team there was struggling with just made wooden antenna mast, constructed from 2 by 6 scraps and nailed together that morning. It was a sight to see them lift it into place, get it to fall into the hole they dug in an attempt to stabilize it, the mad dash for every available rock to drop around the base, all in hopes that it would stay up. MRDT members who were not working on their team task joined in the mad rush for rock – to help (with a little self preservation involved).

Mast set up, base station set up in the back of the “official” U-Haul truck (the operators are not allowed to see the field in which the Rover operates) all was ready to go. With the green light and the timer started the little Rover rushed onto the field in search of a set of GPS coordinates. It rushed right past the stash of tools it would have to later locate and deliver to the astronauts. The Rover searched and searched, it finally located the two astronauts and the tools. It successfully transported a hammer to the first astronaut then ran out of the allotted time. But not before running over the astronaut it was helping. Apparently there is not a point deduction for killing your astronaut! With points on the board, and the most successful run up to that time, Rover was finished competing for the day. We later found that the celebrity Polish Team (our friends) dominated the event later in the day.

After lunch at the Mars Station, the team set up in another part of the desert to run through the paces in preparation for the Science Task event set for Friday. Thinking the most logical location for the Science Task is a dry wash, so we choose one of the many for the run through. After the normal start up panic (power board) the Rover was able to complete the tasks, more or less. There is a glitch with the conductivity measurements; but, the drill for soil sampling worked exceptionally well. The spectrometers are working the gas sensors (methane, ammonia, hydrogen) work. MRDT continued to practice and test as long as the batteries held out. Finally, in the early evening Rover was done for the day, so we packed up and headed home.

Thursday had a scheduled snack, ice cream from the local grocery store. The team was all sitting outside the little store, mostly sitting in the back of the truck slurping ice cream and congratulating Monica on her science group. Back to the Bates Hotel for more work before dinner. We were all surprised to look at the dinner schedule to discover this was our night out on the town. So after a couple of hours of work we all made the long walk across the street, its really the highway we came to town on – but with a car passing by only every 10 or so minutes its hard to think of it as a highway. Our long walk across the street took us to Hanksville’s Grill/Steakhouse, I guess its a steakhouse cause you can get a steak there. Its a good place to eat. Good cowboy food and lots of it. Frankly, it was a welcome break from the cooking and cleaning up routine.

After dinner, guess what, back to work. The EE’s are still working on the power board looking for the glitch that has caused so must frustration but, thankfully, has not had an adverse effect on performance. And, it seems the Rover has gained weight when set up with its science equipment. So, approaching midnight the EE’s are still fiddling with the power board, the Mechanical group has cut the weight to less than 50 kg, the IT computer/driver group is cloistered in their room staring at computer screen (they have pretty much been there every hour not out in the desert) then all work stopped as the presentation crew is giving and run through to the advisors and team. After lots of questions and comments the science presentation crew went back to work as the other team resumed their labors.

Thats it for tonight.

I am still your Friendly Neighborhood Design Center Director,


A Note From Your Friendly Neighborhood Design Center Director

Dateline: Hanksville, UT Thursday, May 29, 2014

Today started with the team fixing breakfast on the deck at the “Bates Motel”. Afterwards we made a quick trip to the “store in the rock” for generator gas and to the grocery shop for some milk.

The team then spent the morning and early afternoon de-bugging a set of serious issues regarding the BMS (battery management system) and communications/connectivity/camera issue, something to do with software/hardware interface that I do not understand (I am after all just a tired old metallurgist) the trusty EEs finally solved the issues in the early afternoon. Then the “short” trip to the Mars Research Station a few miles from town. After about five miles of black top we turned onto a rough trail on BLM land across the rugged terrain. 25 minutes and about 3.5 miles later we were at the research station. Its very rugged, inhospitable land with breathtaking beauty.

The team was able to hike along the “traverse course” to see the obstacles the rover would encounter on Saturday during that part of the competition. I shudder to think of our little Rover taking on the rugged inclines, rocks, snakes and scorpions along the route – the little engine that could…………It is challenging with traverses over the “rock garden”, a meter drop over a ravine, up a very steep incline with no way around, and a steep sideways traverse. Other obstacles were not available to observe, specifically, a location the rover will have to find using only GPS outside of the line of sight (they will not be able to see it except for the on board cameras in the “Astronaut Assistance Task”. The Rover will have to find the location and get within one meter of the astronaut to score points. If that were not enough, it has to find and then manipulate a set of four valves and a switch to activate a piece of equipment – I’m told that will be a piece of cake.

The team then drove further into the dessert (“desert;” He’s not an English major, either. -ed.) to set up and run the Rover through its paces. A 30 foot antenna provides the signal to the Rover that then performed many of the same tasks it will need to do in the next three days. The Rover performed well for the next several hours, giving the team much needed practice in performing the tasks. With the setting sun and barley any battery power left the team packed up and headed back to Hanksville.

They cooked dinner on the camp stove (an invaluable piece of equipment on this trip) ate and debriefed regarding the days activities. With a clear plan the team divided into groups. One group cleaning up the dinner mess, another making chicken salad for lunch tomorrow (canned chicken – smells like cat food according to one of the team members, I have to agree), and two other groups tweaking and working on the Rover. Still working on the BMS that only reads voltage and doesn’t really manage the batteries. No, I don’t know what I am talking about, its EE.

So at 1:00 a.m. in Hanksville, the team in still hard at work. Preparing for the day to come and the first day of competition. Are they ready? Yes. Are they as ready as they could be? Certainly not.. Remember, this is still only their second competition. They have lots to learn. But, they are organized and will produce a respectable result in terms of performance. This is a team that is organized and committed. They are determined to complete their mission to the very best of their ability. And, I am confident they will achieve that mission.

When do they sleep? Beats me. But then, who can really sleep at the Bates Motel? It comes complete with a really creepy innkeeper. All we need is some spooky house on the hill nearby…..and there probably is one if we looked hard enough or were brave enough to find it.

That is all for now. Signing off from “Design Center West” I am,

Your Friendly Neighborhood Design Center Director.


For The Want of a USB Cord, the Pictures Were Lost!

SDELC director, intrepid media stringer and long-haul I-70 trucker Chris Ramsay sends up this dispatch:

The Mars Rover Design Team (MRDT) left Rolla bright and early Monday morning and headed towards Hanksville, UT. A stop in Kansas City to replace a defective camera was followed by lunch in a parking lot. Arriving in Hayes, KS about 7:00 p.m. for the first scheduled stop for the night. The team found a local park, cooked burgers and dogs for dinner, and put the Rover through its paces as a skateboarding facility in the park.

Leaving Hayes early the following day the team stopped and the Rocky Mountain Lake Park in Denver, next to I-70, for a gourmet lunch of chicken wraps cooked the night before at the park in Hayes…… On through the mountains, MRDT made good progress. The trailer blew a tire (thank goodness for two axle trailers!) and the team got to spend some quality time in Gleenwood Springs, CO Goodyear dealership to replace the shredded component. On to Grand Junction where one team member experienced the cleanest gas station bathroom he had ever seen while the rest of the team waited in the vehicles while he responded to his emergency. A bite to eat, and inspirational pep talk from team CEO Michael Brouchard, fuel stop, and back on the road finally crossing the border into Utah. A couple of hours later the caravan pulled into the Hanksville Inn.

MRDT then set up the earth station in the parking lot, unpacked the Rover and immediately started modifying circuit boards, testing, setting up / taking apart, in short just continuing to adjust the Rover for competition criteria – that was just released earlier that day. Apparently, the organizers like to keep the teams guessing.

Visits from other teams (Yale was looking for parts, rather than make the long trek back to Denver the following day…seems like they left this morning), the Polish Team stopped by for a good visit. They won the competition last year, it was a good time to rekindle relationships and admire each other’s efforts over the last year.

“Will try to send some photos but can’t seem to get them to get them on the ipad, seem like. I need a cable I don’t have, argh!”

Exams Are Over!

Many design team members have graduated and parlayed their team experience into graduate school opportunities or well-paying jobs, but the competition season rumbles on.

Next week Steel Bridge heads to Akron, Ohio for the SB Nationals. Jermy Jamison’s crew has been practicing, practicing and practicing, and we’re told they’ve trimmed more than a minute from their assembly time and that translates into higher scores.

Tomorrow afternoon the S&T Baja! Team packs up and heads to Pittsburg, Kansas for the first of two off-road design competitions. Joining them is the team from the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil which set up a temporary home at S&T last week. In 2011 Paulo Yamagata’s USP crew helped christen the new Kummer Center so this year is a reunion of old friends and fellow gear-heads.

While the rest of campus is quiet the SDELC shop is humming. And snoring.
The week before completion is full of sleepless nights, and it’s beginning to take a toll on Miners and guests alike. Team camaraderie and cars are tested to the limit as a year’s worth of effort begins to produce results. Sleep deprivation can produce bizarre behaviors; tempers can flare or the silly season takes over. Both are part and parcel of managing people and morale.

At the same time the Mars Rover Design Team hauls Phoenix to Hanksville, Utah for their second crack at desert operations. Mechanical lead Ian Lee’s group has produced a masterpiece of form and function, but it’s not been without a cost in physical exhaustion (above).

Some people believe that taking advantage of another when the victim is at their most vulnerable is unfair, classless and humiliating. Others fully understand that making fun of the ones you respect and admire builds camaraderie, that making your buddy’s life hell is like saying “We Love You!”
We’ll let you be the judge of which is the case here.

Learn, Succeed and Have Fun. And Inspire

Design team students learn, succeed and have fun while forming an organization that pulls together to tackle a complex challenge. A lesser-known task they perform is to pass on that passion and inspiration to younger students.

S&T’s Mars Rover Design Team helped support the FIRST World Championship Competition in St Louis last weekend. FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an international program that does just what its name says; gets students involved with technological problem solving in a team environment.

S&T freshman and Mars Rover team member Brianna DeGroot, reflects that inspiration in this television report.