MADISON – Lunar dust is sharp stuff. Created when micro-meteorites hit the moon’s surface and shatter into razor-blade-like bits of melted glass, the abrasive dust can cause a multitude of problems for astronauts and machinery.

Within a decade, NASA plans to begin building a permanent lunar colony to serve as an outpost en route to Mars.

So the lunar dust needs to be cleared, and one University of Wisconsin-Madison mechanical engineering student is helping to develop the robotic equipment needed for the task.

Josh Figuered is a NASA co-op, working for the robotics systems technology branch of the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“It’s something I’ve always been super interested in,” he says of NASA. “As a co-op, it’s amazing because they really try to put you through all the processes of engineering. It’s a cool opportunity.”

Figuered is no stranger to the design and manufacturing processes. Originally from a farm in Bloomington, Ind., Figuered spent his high school years working as late as 3 a.m. on cars and bikes for the school solar racing team. The hard work paid off, rewarding Figuered and his teammates with multiple trips to Japan to claim world championship victories.

When he started college at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Figuered continued working for the institute’s Baja team.

However, he soon focused his skills on vehicles of a different sort. As a sophomore, he began working for NASA as a co-op student in spring 2006. He transferred to UW-Madison in time for the spring 2007 semester.

After spending a semester adjusting to UW-Madison, Figuered followed his pattern of alternating his semesters between school and work. He again piled his belongings into his car and moved back to Houston. “It was January the first time I went down. I left my house and it was 14 degrees,” Figuered recalls. “I drove down there, got out of the car and it was 70 degrees. That’s a perk.”

A bigger perk is the chance to work on a new major project each year. In 2007 he designed the transmission for the Chariot lunar rover, a prototype that includes several advanced vehicle concepts and is the first step in a new era of lunar rovers.

Chariot was designed, manufactured, assembled and tested in 11 months – an intense pace, Figuered says.

“What we’ve done with Chariot is design a concept in advanced mobility,” says Figuered.

In 2008, the robotics branch will tackle another rover, which will build on some of the elements developed for Chariot.

Figuered sees his work at NASA as beneficial to earthlings as much as to astronauts.

“The technologies that were developed in order to get to the moon originally really benefited mankind in a variety of ways,” he says. “To set up a sustained colony, you face a lot of huge problems that have solutions that can really be used to benefit people.”

Many of his co-workers, who come from a variety of engineering and non-engineering backgrounds, also are college students on co-op. (NASA takes approximately 50 co-ops per semester.)

“It’s almost like a college campus in a way,” he says of the NASA facilities and co-op culture. “It’s similar, except you don’t have homework and you’re paid to be there.”