The odds were against the team of five students when they submitted their project proposal to NASA’s Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge last month. They were a first-time team that had found out about the challenge last October, putting them at a disadvantage to applicants from other universities who had been preparing in advance.

Yet despite these obstacles, Cal Poly became one of 10 finalists selected among 28 schools to participate in the competition.

The team consists of five mechanical engineering seniors – Alex Krenitsky, Chris Boone, Westin McHaney, Aaron Erickson and Ryan Locatelli – who applied to the competition as part of their senior project. Their mission? To build a robot that can drill through rocks and sand, and extract clean water from the ice beneath it while simultaneously taking measurements. 

The goal is for the robot to allow NASA to put humans back on the moon, and eventually on Mars.

“Being able to work with NASA is kind of an honor in itself,”  Krenitsky said.

In addition to finishing an aerospace internship with Boeing, Krenitsky said he has gained hands-on experience building things as a shop technician in the mechanical engineering department.

“I think one of the advantages [our] team has over other colleges is we have actually made things with our hands before and we have an intuitive knowledge of how long it’s going to take to put this together,” Krenitsky said.

Locatelli said he is interested in system controls and automation, and is excited to explore that area through the NASA challenge. 

“There’s a lot of programming – a lot of moving parts – and I think dealing with that will give me a good idea if that’s something I want to continue doing,” Locatelli said.

Initially strangers who were placed on the same team, the students said they have been able to work together seamlessly from the start. After many sleepless nights spent working together, they have formed close friendships.

According to project advisor and College of Engineering professor Peter Schuster, the team “totally impressed” him.

“They have had to navigate the differences [between the structure of the class and the NASA challenge] and they’ve been very good about that,” Schuster said. “They’re kind of overachievers.”

He said he noticed the different working styles of the team members have not been an obstacle like he has seen in previous teams. 

“They’re flexible with each other, they give each other the space that they need, but they also collaborate and they’ve divided the project up into parts,” Schuster said.

The team submitted their project proposal for their system, Sub-lunar Tap-Yielding eXplorer (STYX), to NASA in an eight-page report in December 2019. Instead of using one tool to drill and extract water, their design featured several tools and a tool changer, which team members say caught NASA’s attention for creativity and originality.

The students received an initial $5,000 from NASA, a $3,100 grant, and $1,000 from the College of Engineering’s Mechanical Engineering department to fund the project.

If selected, the team must assemble their design and submit another report in March. If they are approved then, the students will receive an additional $5,000 from NASA, and the opportunity to demonstrate their prototype in the competition at NASA’s Langley Research Center in June.

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