St. Thomas Academy Experimental Vehicle Team places first among U.S. high schools, earns four awards in NASA competition

submitted photos

submitted photos

The St. Thomas Academy Experimental Vehicle Team placed second overall, and first in the U.S., in the high school division of the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge. The team tied for first with a European Space Consortium for high school students from around the world, but then lost the tiebreaker.

In addition to its performance completing the course and mission tasks, the team earned:

- Rookie of the Year award

- Technology Challenge award (beating all universities and high schools) for the student-designed and built carbon fiber wheels

- Featherweight award for the lightest high-school rover (117 pounds)

- STEM Engagement award for its outreach work with Girl Scouts and elementary students

“As a rookie team, we needed to quickly figure out the best way to earn the maximum amount of points and still stay under the time limit. We had prepared for every possible obstacle and task, but there was a definite disadvantage seeing it for the first time. We already have a long list of changes for next year,” student director Joe McMahon said.

The competition saw nearly 100 teams from around the world competing in high school and college divisions. St. Thomas Academy beat all but two university teams, including Auburn University, Drexel University, Purdue University, University of Houston, University of Memphis, University of Miami and Ohio State University. 

The team included Wil Applebaum, Sam Cunniff, Joe D’Agostino, Michael Hankee, Peter Holmes, Will Hoppe, Nicholas Kettler, Luke Kolar, Yong Jae Lee, Murphy Lynch, Joe McMahon, Lucas Montpetit, Daniel Staelgraeve, Jenna Westlake, Robbie Wolfe, and faculty advisers Caroline Little and Mark Westlake.


About the competition

The NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge is an engineering design competition in which teams design and assemble a vehicle capable of traversing the simulated surface of another world and facilitating mission-objective tasks such as gathering environmental samples of the extraterrestrial terrain. This is the team’s first time competing in the annual challenge, which is held at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Entering a new competition every few years is always exciting,” team adviser Caroline Little said. “The students get to experience the engineering design process from beginning to end. Watching their project grow from scratch work on paper to a NASA rover being raced at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is very rewarding for a teacher.”

The multi-faceted competition awards points based on the team’s ability to assemble its rover in the allotted time; designing a rover that is lightweight; successfully completing course obstacles; performing tasks throughout the mission; and meeting pre- and post-challenge requirements. The challenge’s weight and time requirements encourage compactness, light weight, high performance and efficiency.

As part of the competition — before their first time on the course — rover entries are tested to fit into a lander equipment bay, which has a maximum volume of 5-by-5-by-5-feet.

Teams then navigate their rovers around the half-mile course with only a virtual six-minute supply of oxygen and a one-minute reserve. They gain points as they progress through all stages of the competition. They earn additional points by returning the results of their mission tasks and finishing without using their oxygen reserve. The course includes a simulated field of asteroid debris—boulders from 5 to 15 inches across; an ancient stream bed with pebbles approximately 6 inches deep; and erosion ruts and crevasses of varying widths and depths.

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