Lunar Lion offers students diverse research experiences in space competition

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Without textbooks, blueprints, or even a template to follow, Penn State students are working side-by-side with faculty in a rare opportunity to build a robotic spacecraft — the Lunar Lion — that will land on the moon and return high-resolution images, video footage and scientific data.

Led by Michael V. Paul, space systems engineer in the University's Applied Research Laboratory, students and faculty in engineering, physics, astronomy, geoscience, journalism and business are competing against the world's rising stars in space exploration to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE Competition. 

"This is an opportunity for Penn State to establish itself as a leader in a growing field — a provider of the best research and the best graduates to the commercial and private space industry," Paul said.

Funding for the mission comes from a combination of philanthropy, corporate sponsors and scientific partners in the private sector. Maria Matthews, who graduated from Penn State in December with a doctoral degree in physics, served as the team's business development coordinator. Her work has given her insight into the diversity of the space industry and opened new doors for her in the field.

Matthews, a California native, was focused on building a career in the space industry. Her adviser told her about Penn State's Lunar Lion and recommended she get involved. "There are people from so many disciplines working on this project," she said. "I thought I'd be here to work on systems engineering, but I've learned so much more about the business side of the project, and it's a lot more exciting to me." She recently started a job at an aerospace start-up in Huntsville, Ala.

Paul, who himself was the spacecraft systems engineer for NASA's MESSENGER Mission to Mercury, says Penn State is the only university leading a team in the contest. The other competitors are privately funded. Nevertheless, he likes his team's chances. "With a group of scientists and engineers who understand the difficult tasks of operating in harsh environments, coupled with the energy and ambition of Penn State students, the Lunar Lion can win this competition," he said. 

According to Kevin Walker, a senior from Annapolis, Md., and the student project coordinator, about 20 students are working closely on the project, with more joining every month. For Walker, an industrial engineering major, participating in the Lunar Lion initiative while balancing his studies and his Air Force ROTC obligations has taught him a lot about time management and building good habits while applying his growing technical skills.

"I've learned a lot about technology and business management," said Walker. "This has been an incredible experience, and when I get out of the Air Force I'd be interested in a career focused more on the design process or even management. I've learned a lot about making my own decisions based on where we need to go next with this project."

Reuben Bushnell, an electrical engineering graduate student from Baltimore working on power system design for Penn State's moon lander, said that what makes the project more challenging is that the work each person does impacts everyone else's. "So if we're not communicating with each other, it could affect everyone else," Bushnell said. "You're responsible for your area, but you're responsible for other areas as well."

"This is more like an industry internship, on campus," Bushnell added. "We're working with a multitude of suppliers for parts, and we're learning a lot about troubleshooting."

According to Paul, this kind of careful, coordinated development of complex systems made the Apollo program and other ambitious space projects successful where competing programs around the world failed. The American process of systems engineering, he said, is key to the nation's continued technical and economic strength, and the Lunar Lion is an exciting way to train Penn State students in the practice.

The Lunar Lion project is an opportunity for Penn State to position itself for future research in space systems and exploration at a time when the space industry is transforming, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the birth and recent successes of a growing number of private space companies, he said. And, as the Lunar Lion team attracts more funding and builds its momentum through the next phase, it will add to Penn State's production of the technical and human capital that the country needs to spur economic growth, even before this University-led team launches for the moon.

"It's a great example of how Penn State is serving the country — we're generating leaders here, in addition to growing technical expertise," Paul said.

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Last Updated May 14, 2013