Press Release

NASA Langley Encourages Local Students in Robot Lunacy

By SpaceRef Editor
February 13, 2009
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HAMPTON, Va. – Students at Hampton Roads high schools from Mathews County to Chesapeake have only this weekend to perfect their entries for a regional robot rumble next month in Richmond.

They’re designing and building machines that will compete in one of the world’s biggest engineering challenges … the FIRST Robotics competition. Almost seventeen hundred teams from around the world are working to reach the annual championship event held each April at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. This year the contest is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, which happens in July.

“The scenario the students are facing is particularly challenging,” said Jeff Seaton, NASA Langley Research Center FIRST Robotics champion. “They have to build robots that can work in simulated one-sixth gravity, similar to what astronauts faced on the moon 40 years ago.”

Students from Mathews County High School in Mathews County, New Horizons Regional Education Center on the Peninsula, Menchville High in Newport News Phoebus High School in Hampton, Norview and Lake Taylor High Schools in Norfolk, Norcom High in Portsmouth and Hickory High School in Chesapeake are frantically trying to get ready for the Virginia showdown that could help them make it to the big show.

“Each team must compete in regional events to try to qualify for the international First Robotics championships,” said Seaton. “Virginia’s competition is at VCU’s Siegel Center the weekend of March 21, but teams have to have their robots completed and ready to ship a month in advance.”

Businesses around Hampton Roads sponsor and mentor the teams. The first local team, the NASA Knights of New Horizons, started competing 12 years ago with the help of NASA’s Langley Research Center. NASA employees get involved with FIRST Robotics because exciting students about technology and engineering allows them to share their own passion.

Since 1992 FIRST Robotics has encouraged high school students to use their engineering and psychological skills to tackle a robotic challenge that is presented in the form of a game. In January each team receives an identical kit of parts, including motors, batteries, a control system and automation components, and has six weeks to build a robot based on the team’s interpretation of the game scenario. This year’s is called “Lunacy.”

Lunacy requires robots to throw “moon rocks” into an opposing team’s trailers while moving around the “crater.” That’s the name of the playing field, which for the first time ever is not fully carpeted. Instead, to simulate the moon’s one-sixth gravity, the 27- by 54-foot surface is made of a slick polymer wallboard. Combine that with custom-made slippery wheels and teams will feel like they’re driving on ice.

Adding to the challenge, robots will be hitched to trailers. Plus human players will be part of the scoring process, something that hasn’t happened in a few years. Besides maneuvering the robots by remote control, team members can shoot “moon rocks” worth two points into the opposing team’s trailers from outside the crater. During the last 20 seconds of the game, the human players can shoot “super cells” worth 15 points. But to get those high scoring “cells,” players have to trade in “empty cells” that have been delivered by their robots from the opposite side of the playing field.

Technology, engineering skills and the number of participants have grown since inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology in 1989. The creator of the “Segway” vehicle and the first wearable drug infusion pump said he wanted to inspire youngsters’ participation in science and technology, “by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes,” according to the FIRST Robotics website.

For more information on the NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project visit:

For more information about Virginia’s First Robotics programs, go to:

For a complete a list of FIRST Robotics regional events, corporate sponsors and other details, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.