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Apollo re-enactment
A Lego Mindstorms robot, with a plastic astronaut strapped to the front, approaches a toy lunar lander during an Apollo moon mission re-enactment. (University of Washington Photo / Dennis Wise)

Fifty years after the first Apollo moon landing, students from across the country will get a chance to re-enact the feat with drones and robots, thanks to an educational challenge orchestrated by NASA and the University of Washington’s Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline.

The event — known as the Apollo 50 Next Giant Leap Student Challenge, or ANGLeS Challenge for short — got its official kickoff today at Kent-Meridian High School in Kent, Wash.

“This is a truly interdisciplinary challenge, involving computer programming, robotics, remote sensing and design,” Robert Winglee, who’s the director of the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline as well as a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, said in a news release.

The “Next Giant Leap” title refers to the famous first words that Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong spoke when he stepped onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Students in grades 5 to 12 won’t be asked to make quite that big of a leap. Instead, each team will have to use a drone, a toy-sized replica of NASA’s lunar lander and a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot to explore an 8-by-12-foot map of the moon’s surface.

The challenge involves piloting the drone to set the lander down onto the ersatz lunar surface, programming the robot to explore the surface and bring back a rock sample, and then using the drone to retrieve the lunar lander and bring it back to the starting line.

The teams’ to-do list also includes creating a mission patch, designing uniforms, planning outreach activities and leaving a “culturally significant artifact” on the moon map.

Points will be given and prizes will be awarded, but the organizers of the challenge say this won’t be a contest. Instead, it’s an opportunity to get kids fired up about the past and the future of America’s space effort, which is targeting the moon for human exploration and settlement starting in the 2020s. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is collaborating with the Northwest Earth and Space Science Pipeline on the project.

“An important aspect of this project is to provide access to NASA science and technology for many of the underserved and underrepresented communities across the U.S.,” Winglee said.

Drone and lander
A flying drone carries a lunar lander above a map of the moon’s surface. The bull’s-eye pinpoints the site of the Apollo 11 landing on the map. Other craters that teams will explore are circled in red. (University of Washington Photo / Dennis Wise)

Registration for the challenge opens Feb. 1, and no entry fee will be charged. Each team must include an adult coach, plus a “flight crew” of five students under the age of 18 who’ll be on the field to pilot the drone, operate the robot, identify rock samples and guide the pilot. Other team members can help build the equipment, design the logos and take on other off-the-field tasks.

Schools participating in the challenge will be able to purchase subsidized $500 lunar landing kits that include the drone and the Lego Mindstorms robot parts. Loaner equipment will be available to schools that qualify. Organizers of the challenge will also help teams with fundraising — and provide drone and robotics training on request.

Thirteen NASA regional hubs, including UW’s Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline, will conduct challenges during the week of July 15-20 to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary. The top team from each regional event will win a trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas in August.

The national challenge’s sponsors include the Museum of Flight, Pacific Science Center and the City of Kent in Washington state — plus NASA and the Association of Latino Professionals for America, and Force1, which manufactures drones and other radio-controlled vehicles. Organizers are looking for more sponsors as well as volunteers to help advise the teams and host the regional challenges.

Full details about the ANGLeS Challenge, including the registration procedure, will be posted online on Feb. 1.

The Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline was created at the UW in 2016 under the terms of a $10 million, five-year cooperative agreement with NASA to support science education in Washington, Oregon and Montana.

The consortium conducts teacher training sessions, especially for communities that are traditionally underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. It also helps organize events such as a NASA Fiesta in Seattle and a NASA Inter-Tribal Pow Wow in Ellensburg, Wash.

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