The Part-Time Scientists team was founded in late 2008 at the initiative of Berlin IT consultant Robert Böhme, one year after the Google Lunar XPRIZE began. Currently, the group consists of around 35 people – most of them young engineers – and most from Germany and Austria. The team is backed up by experts on three continents.
There was a time when people were in a hurry to get to the moon. The competition between East and West ended on July 21, 1969 when astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission became the first humans to walk on the lunar surface. There was a total of six manned lunar landings, but hardly anyone remembers the names of most of the astronauts. The moon has always been associated with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Buzz Aldrin, the second human to step onto the moon, is also represented at the Part-Time Scientists’ office in Berlin-Hellersdorf – in the form of a life-size cardboard figure. The team led by Robert Böhme has been leasing office space in this industrial area since April 2015. “We need a place where we can hammer, be noisy and create a mess at three in the morning. This is just the right place for that,” explains team leader Robert Böhme.
“The thing that fascinates me about space travel is its unique nature. It doesn’t have anything to do with a product that is sold to hundreds of customers. Each mission is an adventure,” says Karsten Becker. The team member from Hessen, Germany is the electronics specialist who is responsible for developing the communications link to the Rover. “What matters to us is a high level of engineering ingenuity, not the prize money,” he says.
That is also very credible considering that everyone on the team has been working on a volunteer basis for years now. The core of the team consists of ten to 35 people. A total of 50 space fanatics, physicists, mathematicians and experts are assisting in the effort, including Jack Crenshaw – an old NASA warhorse. The 80 year old space program veteran has experience computing flight paths for the Apollo missions.
In 2009, the Part-Time Scientists presented a prototype of their first exploration vehicle. It was named “Asimov” in tribute to Russian-American biochemist and science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The first lander prototype followed in 2010, and it was named after the French science fiction author Jules Verne.
Current sponsors of the group, along with Audi, include several research institutes and high-tech companies. Among them are NVIDIA, the SLM Solutions Group, CITIM GmbH, the Technical University of Berlin, the Technical University of Hamburg at Harburg, the Austrian Space Forum, the Technical University of Vienna, LeitOn GmbH, ProfitBricks GmbH, Schneider-Kreuznach GmbH and ZweiGrad Industrial Design. Also collaborating with the team is the German national aeronautic and space research center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or DLR). AUDI AG hopes that its involvement with the Part-Time Scientists will motivate other partners to contribute their know-how as well.
Robert Böhme: “There is a lack of visionaries”
Ever since the Part Time-Scientists was established, much has been happening in the life of Robert Böhme. He has had in-depth talks with Bill Gates, and in January 2015 he received the prize winnings of 750,000 US dollars from the Google Lunar XPRIZE Foundation. Böhme has accomplished quite a lot. But the real goal is still far away – 384,400 kilometers away, which is the distance from the Earth to the moon.
This great distance would make some people unsure of themselves, but Robert Böhme does not shy away from the challenge. “It is good to have something that is greater than yourself. It helps you to grow,” says the 29 year old, whom his colleagues describe as an eternal optimist who drives the team forward. Böhme is the captain who keeps his entire team on course – a team that is dispersed over all points of the compass – and he makes public appearances as its spokesperson.
The first streaks of gray are already appearing in his hair, but Böhme talks with the conviction of a person who stands behind what he does. The IT specialist, whose primary job is still at an IT security company, gradually grew into his leadership role. “The most difficult step for me was to leave the details to others,” he admits. “But at some point I realized that there are people who can solder printed circuit boards much better than I can. And I realized that it is my job to ensure that they can do this without disruptions.”
Back in 2008, when he was 22 years old, someone smashed into Böhme’s car, and he received a settlement of 16,000 euros. He transferred 10,000 dollars of this amount to the Google Lunar XPRIZE as his registration fee to enter. A friend had forwarded him an email about the contest.
Robert Böhme has always set his own personal goals, and he is a self-starter. He likes to hike to sort out his thoughts, but he likes to participate in virtual communities even more. Even before the Part-Time Scientists, he set up an Internet radio platform that was based on the open source principle; prior to that he directed a large community for Linux beginners. As a fan of the early Star Trek movies, he always had his eye on outer space. “As a child, I was fascinated by the tricorder that could medically diagnose a person from a distance,” recalls Böhme. “But today, people rely too much on a sort of optimization mania. There is a lack of visionaries.”
Karsten Becker: “The world needs more engineers”
When Karsten Becker pushes buttons on his remote control unit, he is not switching television stations. Rather he is moving something else – on the moon. Becker is developing the communications link to the Audi lunar quattro, the rover. It is this link that will determine whether it can be controlled on the lunar surface. “The first time I heard about the project, I was fascinated,” says the electronics specialist. “We don’t let ourselves be sidetracked by people who say that it can’t be done.”
On Becker’s table there are a screwdriver, a couple of cables and a packet of gummi bears. Sitting on the window sill is a crate of floor plate samples for the rover that have just been delivered. Like everyone else on the Part-Time Scientists team, Becker has spent all of his free time over the past several years furthering the team’s mission.
Shortly after he attended a presentation given by Robert Böhme at a Chaos Computer Camp in 2009, the team member from Hessen decided to join the Part-Time Scientists. Since early 2015, the project ceased to be just a hobby project, and the former doctoral candidate at the Technical University of Hamburg now works full-time at the team’s new office in Hellersdorf. He coordinates processes within individual groups and communicates with suppliers. Along with Robert Böhme, Karsten Becker is another part of the team’s public face.
It was in high school where the son of a pilot first came into contact with electrical engineering and information technology. “On one project I was controlling a robot arm,” he recalls. “I have to do these things myself; I like hands-on work. There is nothing better than playful motivation, and the Part-Time Scientists team is a wonderful vehicle for this. We can tell every five year old child: ‘Look, I am building a moon vehicle!’ That is how you excite children about engineering. And I am firmly convinced that the world needs more engineers than it does lawyers or bankers.”
Jürgen Brandner: “The moon is a springboard to Mars.”
Jürgen Brandner is one of the Austrians on the team. Once a month he flies from Salzburg to Berlin to talk to colleagues at the local office. “We generally sit together until midnight,” reports Brandner. “We do not have any strict working procedures like in a normal job. Our enthusiasm for the project often has us working voluntarily 16 hours straight in the office without even noticing the time.”
This dedication to the work at hand comes from the realization that they have found a task that they can be really passionate about. The catalyst for the Part-Time Scientists was that like-minded people were coming together who otherwise would have simply muddled along alone working in their basements. Many in the group share the circumstance of having at one time or other wanted to pursue an entirely different career.
At one time, Jürgen Brandner nearly applied to work on a Formula 1 team. When he heard about the Google Lunar XPRIZE, he wrote to a number of its German participants. Now, as a member of the Part-Time Scientists team the Austrian is responsible for ensuring that the mechanics of the Rover operates properly. His primary involvement with the team is to develop all mechanical components.
The 37 year old does not see any insurmountable barriers to his ideas. “We need the moon as a springboard for a journey to Mars,” he explains. “That is why we are sending a 3D printer with the mission. Although it will only print small cubes, we want to demonstrate that it can work. In the future, it will be necessary to build components on the moon. To attempt to transport all of the material on a spacecraft from Earth would cost too much in terms of the energy it takes to overcome gravity.”
When we hear Brandner talk like this, we wonder why he doesn’t write science fiction books instead of fantasy novels. To him, the daily exercise of writing is the ideal counterbalance to the world of wires, monitors, cable and solar cells. The Austrian still has a surprise in store for his German colleagues should the Audi lunar quattro land on the moon’s surface. “The drop containers will open, and out will come a red-white-red flag,” chuckles Brandner. “That will grab their attention!”
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