Chrys Arreola Padilla and Annika Nittmo piloting the land rover
HERCules rover crew (L-R), Chrys Arreola Padilla and Annika Nittmo.
Rylie Livingston | UAH

A team from The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) placed first in the 2023 NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge (HERC) this year. The competition, held April 20-22 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) Aviation Challenge area, tasks college and high school teams from around the nation and the world to design, develop, build and test human-powered rovers capable of negotiating difficult terrain, as well as a task tool for completion of various mission tasks. This marks the first time the event was held in person in four years, due to the advent of the pandemic in spring 2020.

In support of coming Artemis missions to the moon and beyond, HERC encourages research and development of new technology for future mission planning and crewed space missions to other worlds. The UAH rover is nicknamed ‘HERCules,’ and was guided by a two-person crew, competing with 49 teams from 20 states and eight countries.

“It was great to be back in-person with the NASA HERC event!” says David Fikes, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is the team advisor and Senior Design Instructor. “As the advisor/instructor for six years now, I am proud of our UAH students. They set a goal and worked extremely hard to achieve it, some putting in 20-plus hours a week at times. They deserve all the credit, but I also want to thank all our sponsors, especially the Alabama Space Grant Corporation (ASGC) and the UAH College of Engineering. Several smaller sponsors have been a huge help as well.”

“I am truly grateful to David Fikes for his dedication and passion to teaching and mentoring our mechanical and aerospace engineering senior design students,” says Dr. Shankar Mahalingam, dean of the UAH College of Engineering. “His enthusiasm is contagious and our students work incredibly well in small teams under his guidance. He ensures that everyone has a key role in meeting design objectives needed for the class, and in adhering to competition guidelines. We are confident that these students will be incredibly successful in their engineering careers.”

The HERC was founded 29 years ago, inspired by Apollo 15, the NASA mission which saw the first utilization of an automotive vehicle on the moon, the LRV, or Lunar Roving Vehicle, in July, 1971. The lunar rover enabled NASA astronauts David R. Scott, James B. Irwin to collect more lunar samples than the previous two moon-landing missions combined.

Charging to the finish line

The UAH team has been working toward this goal for eight months. “Teams start in August and have to have their Rover ready in April,” Fikes says. “Which is a remarkable feat considering having to perform a design, purchase materials, reports due to NASA, fabrication, assembly and testing are all required. Besides the rover, each team had to design and build a multipurpose water collection device (Task Tool) to collect samples from five different mission simulators, which was also quite a challenge.”

Hazel McLaughlin | UAH

“Half the points for the competition score come from the Design Report and Presentation to NASA, the Operational Readiness Report and Presentation to NASA and the STEM Outreach Requirements,” Fikes explains. “The other half come from the performance of the rover and Task Tool on the NASA/USSRC course.”

That course proved extremely tricky, presenting a bumpy half-mile-long trek over ‘planetary’ terrain, featuring obstacles such as simulated asteroid debris, boulders, erosion ruts, crevasses and an ancient streambed. Weight and time requirements dictated that the most effective rovers were lightweight, compact high-performance vehicles. Each rover entry was also tested to ensure it would fit into a five foot-by-five foot cubical lander storage space. Rover operators were also confined to working with a virtual oxygen supply of only eight minutes, and thus had to make real-time decisions about which mission objectives to attempt and which to leave behind along the way.

“UAH had an in-house competition for selecting riders, and we had Annika Nittmo as our female rider, and Chrys Arreola Padilla as our male rider and Task Tool operator,” Fikes says. “They performed together very well and had practiced a lot with our older rovers, and with the winning HERCules Rover. They made great decisions on the course. Our victory was a complete team effort! We not only had sub teams designing and constructing a rover and Task Tool, but others doing finance/purchasing, stress analysis, research for future designs, STEM outreach, writing reports due to NASA, presentations on the Design and Operational Readiness, building obstacles to simulate the course to practice and test the rover and designing mission simulators to test our Task Tool. It took all of these teams for UAH to be successful.”

Like the Apollo 15 mission, all these tasks had to be performed while collecting surface materials and conducting crucial science experiments over the three days of the competition. In addition, teams earned points by successfully completing design reviews as part of the mission tasks.

“One reason that UAH did so well, was that we took the reporting very seriously and accumulated a lead on most teams with our reporting and STEM outreach,” Fikes says. “Then, our riders and rover team strategized on what to do, and what not to do, on each excursion. Decisions have to be made on the course based on your current time and distance. You can’t attempt everything and get back within eight minutes – that is part of the NASA challenge.”

The HERC challenge is part of a senior design class in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at UAH, a part of The University of Alabama System. Team members and their roles included:


Team MemberRoleTeam MemberRole
Cameron Adams Research and Development (R&D) Stephen Maldonado Rover Frame
Chrys Arreola Padilla Rider, Task Tool, Practice Course Abdelrahman Mohamed Rover, Practice Course
Savannah Baron Reports, Rover Wheels Jessica Morrow STEM, Reports, Social Media
Justin Bensinger Task Tool Team Lead Nao Murata Backup Rider, STEM, Social Media
Alexander Blair Team Leader, FEA Annika Nittmo STEM, Practice Course
Luke Campbell Rover Team Lead, Construction Dylan O'Donoghue MS, STEM
Riley Cavitt FEA Lead, Mission Simulators (MS) Animesh Sahu Backup Rider, Task Tool, MS
Ryan Dauer Practice Course, Rover Frame Alexander Smudde Rover, Task Tool
Tanner Duncan FEA, MS Benjamin Solomon FEA, Safety
Ryan Everette R&D, FEA Jacob Springer Rover Construction Lead
Aidan Faino R&D, Task Tool Sydney Stogner Social Media, Safety
Mario Georgiou Safety Officer, STEM Heather Thompson Finance, Practice Course
Colton Gray Task Tool Alan Uribe MS, STEM
Sawyer Gurganus Practice Course, Rover Wheels Rachel Vernetti Reports Lead, STEM
Josie Hodges Task Tool, MS Mathew Wilson MS, Safety
Preston King Rover Frame