Teens’ hopes fly high in NASA Challenge

Vision Builder Rover test

The Vision Builder rover prototype goes airborne during tests at Hornet’s Nest Park

The future of NASA exploration – or at least the dreams of several teenagers – recently flew down the dirt-bike track at Hornet’s Nest Park. The teens, members of the Vision Builder Adventures program, were testing their emerging entry in the 2021 NASA Rover Challenge.

“Testing the Rover was wild and awesome fun!” said Marshall George, a student leader with Vision Builders.

Johnny White founded Vision Builder Adventures 14 years ago to help area youth learn and have fun through projects. That vision fits perfectly with the Rover Challenge.

“Each year, the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge features an engineering design challenge to engage students worldwide in the next phase of human space exploration,” the Rover Challenge website says. “The competition challenges high-school and college students to create a vehicle designed to traverse the simulated surface of another world.”

The Vision Builder Rover team comes from several area high schools, including the Cato Middle College High at Central Piedmont Community College’s Cato Campus in University City. The team includes:

  • Warren Floyd, sophomore at Olympic High School
  • Marshall George, senior at Central Cabarrus High School
  • Major George, junior at Central Cabarrus High School
  • Jacob Kim, senior at Audrey Kell High School
  • Hannah White, CATO Middle College High

Last year, Vision Builder took a large group of students to the NASA center in Alabama. “This time, we’re taking the kids who are able to do the fabricating and able to do all of the other activities” required to design and field a competitive rover. “These are sharp kids!”

Months of work

Team members with rover prototype

Team members work on their rover prototype at a local shop

The Vision Builder team began working on the project in June with guidance from White and several volunteers from nearby businesses.

The pressure to create and build a rover worthy of the NASA competition in Huntsville, Ala., was already intense; the pandemic took it to a new high. The Vision Builder Facebook page has many photos of the students and adults designing and building their pedal-powered two-person prototype.

“We’ve been Zooming, Zooming, Zooming, Zooming,” White said, referring to the popular group video-meeting platform. “We’ve been going back and forth on designing it, and then going to the fabricator’s shop three times to get it to the point where we can test it. It has been an adventure.”

First big trial run

Team and community members after test

Johnny White: “We would like to thank our community partners for a successful day of Testing. Eric Simpson (Resident Mechanical Engineer), Daimen Liesman (MOBS Custom Fabrication), Mark Coates and staff (Hornets Nest BMX Track owner), Will Murray (BMX Professional Champion “Retired”) and Parents.”

That test came in mid-November, when the students, White and volunteers took their rover to the BMX dirt track at Hornet’s Nest Park. A short video clip (click to watch) captures two of the team members pedaling furiously and taking the rover airborne over one of the track’s dirt ridges.

“We learned a lot about the rover’s capabilities,” White reported on the Vision Builder Facebook page. “Good results. But we still have some work to do.”

Much more to do before April in Huntsville

That work will continue through April 2021, when the team travels to NASA’s facility in Huntsville for three days of competition.

Each team member is in charge of a part of the project, including design, fabrication and marketing, White says. “So we’ve got different kids working on different things, taking ownership of different things, and we are pushing, pushing, pushing it on through.”

You can watch and help

  • See the progress so far and keep up with next steps via the group’s Facebook page.
  • Learn about Vision Builder Adventures at the group website.
  • Provide support for this and future programs by contacting Johnny White at visionbuilder@outlook.com and 704-412-8205. Vision Builder Adventures is a nonprofit 501c3 organization. Community partners and donations underwrite a big part of the program. Learn more

Thanks to the Student Advisory Team

Adult volunteers are essential to this project’s success. The Rover Challenge advisory team includes:

  • Eric Simpson – Resident Mechanical Engineer
  • Johnny White – Program Coordinator
  • Program advisors
    • Damien Liesman, MOBS Custom Fabrication
    • Jeremy Funk, Mallard Creek Polymers
    • William Murray, former BMX Racing Pro
    • Mark Coates, operator of Hornet’s Nest BMX Track operator
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