Students from The University of Alabama at the finish line
The UAH HERC Rover team poses with their rover THESEUS just after claiming first place at the 2024 NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge competition.
Pedro Rodriguez and Rylie Livingston / UAH

UAH teams have taken first place five times in the NASA Artemis Challenge event

For the second year in a row, engineering students from The University of Alabama in Huntsville, a part of the University of Alabama System, have captured first place in the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge (HERC) competition. With the latest victory, UAH has won first place five times in the 30-year history of the event, taking top honors in 1996, 2012, 2018, 2023 and now 2024. Managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the challenge took place April 19-20 at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. More than 600 students with 72 teams participated, representing 42 colleges and universities, as well as 30 high schools from 24 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, as well as 13 other nations.

The UAH rover, named THESEUS for Transportable Human Exploration System Equipped for Unconventional Surfaces, completed the course in a blistering 5:00 for Excursion 1 and 5:33 for Excursion 2 the following day, well under the eight-minute requirement, while employing a task tool developed by the team to perform various mission goals along the way. In addition, the UAH team took the top prize in the Project Review Award category. See video.

“UAH has a wealth of experience in building winning rovers, and old design choices are able to help inspire new designs,” explains team member Karissa Coggin. “Last year’s victory reinforced the importance of an intelligent task tool design, which was the make-or-break facet of the competition both then and now. Starting early and doing rigorous trade studies and testing set us up for success. Several rover subsystems last year gave a foundation for huge improvements this year, including wheels, drivetrain and frame. With these improvements, we were able to attempt all 10 obstacles and conquer eight of them.”

The prime objective of the HERC is for student teams to design, develop, build and test human-powered rovers capable of tackling difficult environments and terrain with drivers making real-time decisions about which mission objectives to attempt and which to leave behind, limited by a virtual eight-minute supply of oxygen. This year’s competition required two students, at least one female, to traverse a half-mile course that included a simulated field of asteroid debris, boulders, erosion ruts, crevasses and an ancient streambed. The squads also earned points by completing design reviews for their respective divisions.

“This year’s run was two minutes faster than last year’s run, which is impressive given that this year we successfully completed each mission task on both excursion days,” Coggin notes. “One of our major goals this year when designing our rover was to climb the 22° High Butte obstacle, and we successfully did this on both of our excursions. Despite last year's resounding success giving our team big shoes to fill, we were able to come back strong and even go farther.”

UAH generosity and sportsmanship helps forge international bonds

The UAH group not only excelled on the course; team members also played a big role in advancing international relations by supporting fellow squads from across the globe.

"I am so proud of our students,” says David Fikes, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is the team advisor and senior design instructor. “They helped many teams repair their rovers this weekend, even if they were our competitors. I was amazed. The German high school team got second place because UAH team members did some aluminum welding repair for them Friday night. This resulted in them being able to compete on Saturday, where they obtained the fastest time of the weekend and got second place in the high school division.”

“As the hometown team, we had the unique ability to help out other teams and share our resources so that everyone had a fair chance to compete,” Coggin says. “We didn’t want to see a team not be able to run the course because of a fixable failure or lack of resources. Whether it was welding a broken seat, printing a task tool component or fixing a drivetrain, we were willing to help our fellow HERC teams.”

Team advisor Fikes agrees. “Peru was located right next to us in the pit area. We gave them materials, paint, let them borrow tools and helped them repair their rover as well. We exchanged national flags Saturday after the competition and became friends. We helped many other teams also. It was so special!”

The goal of NASA’s Artemis mission is to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon’s South Pole and to establish a sustained human presence there, as well as developing many of the technologies needed for human exploration of Mars and beyond. Since its inception in 1994, more than 15,000 students have participated in HERC. To learn more, visit NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge.

Pedro Rodriguez and Rylie Livingston / UAH