During the Apollo 15 moon mission in 1971, astronauts David Scott and James Irwin unfolded NASA's electric-powered lunar rover from the lunar module and became the first humans to take a spin on another world as they traversed the moon's craggy surface. That maiden lunar drive will be revisited—at least in spirit—today and tomorrow as NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center hosts its 16th annual Great Moonbuggy Race at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Slide Show: The Great Moonbuggy Race, Past and Present

More than 500 students from 21 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, India, Mexico, Germany and Romania are expected to come and pit their own self-powered rovers (they typically build them with pedals) against one another to see who can assemble their collapsible vehicles—they must be able to fit in a cube with four-foot (1.2-meter) sides, roughly the same folded dimensions in which the original rovers were carried in the lunar landers—and traverse a half-mile (0.8-kilometer) moonlike obstacle course in the shortest amount of time. Every vehicle is required to have a specific set of parts—fenders, a flag and simulated mission hardware including batteries, a communications antenna, a radio and a video camera. The course's 17 obstacles—built from plywood and discarded tires—are covered with approximately 20 tons of gravel and five tons of sand shaped into moonlike craters, basins and simulated "rilles" (channels thought to be formed by ancient lava flows on the lunar surface).

The competition was initially created as part of the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing and to inspire up and coming engineers, says Mike Selby, a Marshall avionics engineer and former moon buggy winner (in 1996 while a student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville).

"The course, because of the speed and the obstacles, is pretty punishing on the vehicles," he says. "If you build it out of bicycle parts, you're going to be in trouble. A lot of teams will pull parts from a motorcycle or [an all-terrain vehicle] so it will hold up better."