National Geographic Society

  • Connect:

Behind the Scenes of Hillbilly Moonbuggy

The Great Moon Buggy Race

Photo: Moon buggy crash

Photo: Moon buggy crash (View larger version)

Photograph by NGC and Flight 33

John Winquist, Production Assistant


As hosts of The Great Moonbuggy Race, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is a great place to learn about space flight and exploration. Located in Huntsville Alabama, the entire grounds are adorned with rockets, lunar landers, and  interactive displays. The flagship is the newly restored Saturn V rocket housed in the Davidson Center at the front entrance. The Great Moonbuggy Race started 18 years ago and is an annual competition to see which moon buggy can traverse the simulated lunar surface obstacle course in the quickest time. The 7/10 mile course is riddled with different lunar obstacles not limited to large rocks, mushy gravel pits, and moon craters.

Each team of students from around the world must construct a human-powered moonbuggy. It must collapse to fit into a space of 4 x 4 x 4 feet and be carried to the starting line by its two occupants. The moonbuggy must then be reassembled; this time is added to the overall course time. The three teams with the shortest course times win.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, here’s the hitch. While the other teams take many months if not years to build their moonbuggies, our team of redneck geniuses are going to build theirs in two days! And on top of that they’re going to run the race with simulated space suits and helmets.

As usual our boy’s got right to work. Travis spotted a couple bikes in the garage that belonged to his parents. After a little back and forth he convinced his father to let them use them on the condition he replaces the bikes in the future. 

The build was quick and efficient—full of the down-home ingenuity we’ve grown to expect. After a little time at the chalkboard they had their plan in place. They taped off a four-foot section on the garage floor to make sure they were within regulation. Now it was time to cut the bikes apart and start welding together the buggy. A little grey spray paint and voila: a moon buggy. A quick test at a local friends dirt farm (yes, some people are smart enough to make money selling their dirt) and they’re ready for the races.

The Space & Rocket Center each team is directed to their own pit area. There are what seem to be hundreds of moon buggies being worked on and racing around in the parking lot.  Even though there’s a lot of work to do, you can’t help but walk around and take it all in. There are moon buggies of every size, color, and configuration. And the teams are all more than willing to tell you all about them.

So back at our pit, Travis and Pete are suiting up for the race. There is an air of excitement all around. 

I went to shoot the course ahead of our team. I set the camera up near the end at a tight turn. Seconds later, here comes a racing moonbuggy flying around the turn. Their speed was too much for the turn and over they went.  Without hesitation, the driver jumps out and flips the buggy back over—passenger and all—jumps back in and peddles his heart out to finish the race. At that point I realized how serious these competitors were.

Now it’s our teams turn. The rednecks get through the assembly process without a problem and set up at the starting line. The starting gun goes off and away they go. Dressed in their space suits and all, they didn’t look like any of the other teams. The whole crowd was cheering them on. They traverse the first few obstacles without incident. But then I see Travis outside the moonbuggy kicking it. I thought he’d finally lost his temper and was taking it out on the buggy.  It turns out he was straightening a wheel that was bent on the obstacle. It worked. They were back in the race. Giving it everything they had, Travis and Pete pedaled through obstacle after obstacle, making up lost time. Until that moment that their increased speed made them finally hit one obstacle too hard—immobilizing the buggy.  Everyone thought it was the end for Team Redneck.  But displaying their standard never-say-die spirit, Travis and Pete jump out, lift the thing on their shoulders and and carry the buckled buggy across the finish line. 

They didn’t win… but they made sure they finished. It was a fitting end for this team that seems to overcome any obstacle, no matter how crazy, and always get the job done in the end.