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The Col. Nuestra Senora del Perpetuo Socorro High School team of Puerto Rico drive around the course as the 19th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race continued Saturday April 14, 2012 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. – AP Photo

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama: Student teams from across the United States and as far away as Russia and India are in north Alabama for the Great Moonbuggy Race, an annual competition staged by NASA to encourage engineering expertise, bumps and all.

The 19th annual race began Friday at the US Space and Rocket Center, with 88 two-person teams from 20 states, Puerto Rico and five foreign countries pedaling four-wheeled contraptions around a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) course covered with gravel humps, wooden obstacles, a sand pit and tires. It will conclude Saturday, with winners in separate divisions for high schools and colleges.

Each moonbuggy has one male and one female rider, and the vehicles are required to be small enough to fit into a small box 4-foot square (0.37 meters square), similar to the size of real lunar rovers used on the surface of the moon during the Apollo program.

Sarah Parkison, 15, and Clinton Jones, 16, Illinois, found out how challenging the course can be when the steering mechanism broke on their rig during the race, forcing them to push their moonbuggy part of the way. Students have been working on the school’s moonbuggy since last summer, Jones said.

‘‘It’s a tough course,’’ Jones said.

‘‘It’s a lot harder than it looks,’’ said Parkison. Evgeniy Zakutin, 24, is participating for the first time as captain of the Russian team from the International Space Institute, based in Germany. Corporate sponsors and donors covered the nearly $40,000 cost of the team’s sleek, expertly engineered vehicle, he said, but it’s still not easy bringing a moonbuggy from Moscow to north Alabama in cases and backpacks.

‘‘We traveled from Germany then built the moonbuggy there and then traveled together with German team,’’ said Zakutin.

The more than 500 student participants have to assemble their racers at the starting line, similar to the way astronauts prepared rovers for work on the moon. After that, they compete to see who can navigate the course’s obstacles the quickest.

Organizers said the race helps students learn about overcoming challenges. ‘‘This is about engineering, science and technology,’’ said Jeff Ehmen, who works in the education office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

‘‘It’s engineering to design the vehicle, but then how do you actually build it so it can withstand the conditions it’s expected to operate in?’’

NASA retiree Otha ‘‘Skeet’’ Vaughan helped design real lunar rovers in the 1960s, and now he serves as a volunteer during the moonbuggy races. ‘‘Slow down!’’ he called out repeatedly as racers neared one tricky downhill curve.

Vaughan is worried that the United States currently lacks the rockets to launch astronauts into space, and he fears that a generation will grow up without any interest in space exploration. Maybe the moonbuggy race will help, he said.

‘‘It’s a lot of fun to see the kids get so enthusiastic about doing it,’’ he said as a buggy whizzed by. ‘‘That’s part of our problem with the space program today. There’s not much enthusiasm about it, and that’s something I hate because we had something really going there.’’