NASA asks college students to submit proposals for future moon and Mars missions


NASA issued an open call to undergraduate and graduate students who want to develop new concepts that support the agency’s upcoming Artemis mission to the moon and future crewed missions to Mars. Participating teams will submit proposals to the 2020 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Competition.

This year’s event notably seeks concepts beyond science and engineering. It also includes a theme that is “dedicated to economic analysis of commercial opportunities in deep space.”

Challenging Students to Advance Space Exploration

For nearly 20 years, International Space Station (ISS) crew members have conducted thousands of scientific experiments. Last month, equipment for over 250 new investigations arrived at the space station during SpaceX’s CRS-18 Commercial Resupply Mission. Among them are studies that support NASA’s impending lunar landing objectives.

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However, traveling to the moon means NASA needs to reach beyond low-Earth orbit—where the current ISS crew resides. The RASC-AL competition aims to discover innovations that will help meet the agency’s expanding interstellar goals.

Collegiate teams in fields of study related to human space exploration can enter the 2020 challenge. Acceptable academic programs include aerospace, biomedical, mechanical, and electrical engineering, as well as those rooted in the computer, life, and physical sciences.

Douglas Craig, manager of strategic analysis for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division at NASA Headquarters gave details on the project in a statement, “This year’s RASC-AL competition directly addresses the agency’s goals for the Artemis program: returning humans to the moon with the intent to prove concepts for sustainably exploring Mars.”

He continued, “The multidisciplinary teams that RASC-AL attracts each year mirror the varied skill sets that will be extremely important for reducing risk and improving the affordability of the Artemis program as well as future deep space missions.”

Competition Themes

Overall, RASC-AL submissions will present ways to help humankind function and live in outer space and on distant planets. Projects must fit one of five themes. These include designing a lunar rover, plotting a short surface stay on Mars, and preparing a cash flow analysis for a commercial cislunar business.

Entries must include a two-minute video and “a detailed seven to nine-page proposal that presents novel and robust applications” which correlate to one of the challenge themes. The submission deadline is March 5, 2020.

Working Together to Achieve a Common Goal

RASC-AL teams are creating innovations during an exciting time for space exploration. NASA and its diverse roster of partners—like SpaceX and Boeing—are launching intensive efforts surrounding future missions to both the moon and Mars.

Bringing bright, young, academic minds together to conceptually assist in these endeavors will undoubtedly yield some promising results.

“Year after year, this rigorous competition attracts the kind of future scientists, engineers, and pioneers that we are looking for,” said Patrick Troutman, human exploration strategic assessments lead at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “RASC-AL provides an ideal platform for students to do this kind of meaningful, real-world research. It provides us with different perspectives that keep us on our toes and occasionally has us rethinking our approaches for exploring the wonders of space.”

Last Year’s Winners and Other RASC-AL Details

Students from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez won first prize in the 2019 RASC-AL challenge for their project called LEAPR: Lunar Exploration and Access to Polar Regions. The winning proposal allows multiple crewed lunar surface missions to install a research facility on the moon.

For this year’s challenge, NASA and industry experts will choose concepts from up to 15 teams. The winning projects will then be developed further. Competing university teams will present their projects for review at the 2020 RASC-AL Forum. The event takes place in Cocoa Beach, Florida in June 2020. Selected teams will receive a $6,000 forum participation stipend.

Furthermore, the first and second place teams will also receive a stipend to travel to a major aerospace conference of their choosing, such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SPACE Forum.