From left: Derique Duran, Binh Dao, Jason Fuqua, Skyler Bunce

Some of the nearly 100 high school and college teams competing in the 2017 Human Exploration Rover Challenge spent hundreds of hours on their “moon buggy” rovers.

The CU Denver team, comprised of nine members of Instructor Doug Gallagher’s Senior Design course in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, estimates that they collectively spent 5,000 hours engineering, building and testing “Epiphany,” their human-powered entry in the competition.

Their hard work paid off with two big awards at the international competition hosted by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. CU Denver brought home honors for Rookie of the Year and, even more significantly, the Neil Armstrong Best Design Award.

“We are so lucky to have this kind of flexibility with choosing a project for senior design,” said Jason Fuqua, one of the team members. “At some schools, you are told what you have to build. We chose our own project, got to build this amazing thing and then take it to NASA to race.”

‘At first we didn’t think he was crazy’

The idea for the senior project started with Derique Duran, who readily admits that he borrowed it not from a textbook, but from television in an episode of the reality show “Rocket City Rednecks.”

“At first, we didn’t think he was crazy,” said Skyler Bunce, another team member, laughing. “But none of us knew what we were getting ourselves into!”

Inspired by the lunar roving vehicles of the Apollo moon missions, the competition challenges students to solve engineering problems, while highlighting NASA’s commitment to inspiring new generations of scientists, engineers and explorers.

“It takes you back to a time when the country was excited by space,” Duran said. “You arrive at Rocket City in Huntsville and the first thing you see is the Saturn V rocket standing there. It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty!”

To test the student-built rovers, NASA engineers created an obstacle course that simulates conditions on the moon or Mars, and teams compete to finish the course in the best time. There are additional requirements—the rover must be able to fold into a 5-foot cube, and the two riders, one male and one female, must be able to pick it up and carry it for 25 feet.

Some entries in the competition weighed as much as 300 pounds. Epiphany weighed 170 pounds, prompting competitors at the race to ask the CU Denver team about its secret to lightweight design.

“We built everything we could out of carbon fiber,” said team member Binh Dao. “It has very high strength and very low weight.”

Derique Duran looks at Epiphany in design stages
Epiphany at the 5th Street Hub
Epiphany at the 5th Street Hub

‘She is one of the most determined human beings’

Four members if the team spent 28 hours on the road driving Epiphany down to Huntsville for the competition, where they faced teams from schools around the world, including U.S.  universities Purdue, Ohio State, Arizona State and Drexel. The competition course included a 30-degree hill, fondly referred to by competitors as the “Martian Butte,” which had stymied every entrant in the previous year’s competition—no one had made it up without dismounting. This year, Epiphany made it.

But the riders also had to navigate sand dunes and two boulder fields. When a shifter cable broke, the front driver was limited to a single gear for the remainder of the course, minimizing his contribution to powering the vehicle.

As a result, Epiphany was powered primarily by the petite female driver, Lesely DiMarco, for the remainder of the course. All of her fellow teammates credit her powerful pedaling and physical stamina for their award-winning finish, despite the malfunction.

“She is one of the most determined human beings you will ever meet on this planet,” said Bunce.

Choosing DiMarco as the female rider was no accident. Before picking riders, the team took everyone to the gym for a pedaling test, calculating each person’s power-to-weight ratio and the amount of wattage each person generated. DiMarco beat out everyone, including every male in the group.


After the competition, Epiphany returned to its throne in the 5th Street Hub, where its creators can admire their handiwork and reflect on the reasons for their success. They give credit to the great instruction they received in the Mechanical Engineering Department, specifically naming Gallagher, Senior Instructor Joe Cullen, Adjunct Professor Amir Torbati, PhD, and Assistant Professor Dana Carpenter, PhD.

“They have an overwhelming amount of knowledge in the general field of engineering,” Bunce said. “Some professors are only skilled in one area. These professors think about everything.”

Duran believes that Epiphany did well because students started the project thinking about the engineering, rather than about the design. “Every single thing on the rover was engineered,” he said. “Our engineering foundation skills were tremendous and other teams looked at us and said, ‘Wow.’”

“That,” he added with a smile, “was our goal.”



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