Competition Basics


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NASA is working with commercial and international partners to develop the Gateway, a cis-lunar outpost enabling crewed missions to the Moon (and eventually Mars) that also supports science and industry. The 2019 RASC-AL Competition is seeking undergraduate and graduate teams to develop new concepts that leverage innovations that improve our ability to access and explore destinations in cis-lunar space via the Gateway. This year’s themes range from using the Gateway as the hub of new science capabilities to using it as the jumping-off point for humanity’s return to the lunar surface. Each team’s response should address novel and robust applications to expand humanity’s ability to live and explore beyond Earth.


The RASC-AL Program is open to full-time undergraduate or graduate students at an accredited U.S.-based university. Students studying in any major related to the RASC-AL topics (generally science, medicine, engineering, technology, or mathematics) are most fitted to the challenge. Teams may include senior capstone students, clubs, multi-university teams, or multi-disciplinary teams.

  • Team sizes vary widely, but must contain, at a minimum, one faculty or industry advisor with a university affiliation at a U.S.-based institution, and 2 students from a U.S.-based university who work on the project and present at the RASC-AL Forum. There is no limit to the number of participants on each team, however, please contact the program staff if you plan to bring more than 12 participants to the RASC-AL Forum so all attendees may be accommodated.

  • One faculty advisor is required to attend the Forum with each team, and is a condition for acceptance into the RASC-AL Competition.

    • Teams who do not have a faculty advisor present at the annual RASC-AL Forum will be disqualified from competing and travel stipends will be subject to return to NIA.


Foreign students or universities can participate only as team-members/collaborators with a U.S.-led Team. The U.S. team will be the primary POC and will determine how/if the participation stipend will be distributed to international partners teams for travel to the forum.


A team is classified as an “undergraduate team” if the majority of the student members are undergraduate students. Similarly, a team is classified as a “graduate team” if the majority of the student members are graduate students.


2019 Themes Doc Pic


NASA’s Gateway depends on resupply of consumables and spares through the launch of multiple logistics modules. These modules may spend up to 200 days in transit from launch to arrival at the Gateway, and are assumed to enter into a heliocentric disposal orbit. During transit, the logistics module is responsible for maintaining its payload; however, there are opportunities for the module to also host science payloads. These payloads can perform valuable science that takes advantage of a platform with existing power, communications, and attitude control capabilities. These capabilities could also be utilized in the disposal orbit.

This theme challenges teams to propose use cases for the logistics module as a science platform. Teams should review the science objectives, targeted observables, and measurables from the National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Surveys in Earth Science, Planetary Science, Astrophysics, and/or Heliophysics. Teams should identify measurements that could be retrieved using the capabilities of the logistics module. Teams should also identify potential instrument concepts that could be supported by the logistics module to perform the desired science.

The logistics module is constrained to a total mass of 6,000 kg (including 2,500 kg of logistics mass). From that logistics mass, up to 500 kg are available to be used for instrument and support systems (e.g. data storage and processing, expanded communications capabilities). In addition, the logistics module will possess approximately 1 kW of solar array capability; of this, 250 W are available to be used for instrument and support systems. Science payloads may be located on either the external or internal parts of the logistics module; however, the internal pressurized volume of the module cannot be opened to deploy any part of the science payload or support systems. Logistics modules will begin flying to the Gateway in 2024.
Teams should describe the concept of operations for their science payload, from launch to arrival at the Gateway, as well as any relevant operations after the logistics module leaves the Gateway. Teams should identify the science that will be performed and why it was selected. Teams should describe how their science payload fits within the provided capabilities of the logistics module. Teams should identify what new technical capabilities are required to enable their science payload, keeping in mind the 2024 operational date of the logistics module and NASA’s human exploration strategic principle of fiscal realism.

It is recommended that teams draw on a variety of expertise for this team, including both engineering and science disciplines.



As a hub for cis-lunar activity, the Gateway provides a destination where payloads can be aggregated. Commercial launch vehicles are capable of delivering greater than 10,000 kg to the Gateway, while payloads that are co-manifested with Orion aboard the SLS can reach 9,000 kg. One broad application for the Gateway is to serve as the point-of-origin for payloads to be transferred to low Lunar orbit or other destinations in cis-lunar space.

This theme challenges teams to design a reusable cis-lunar tug to transport payloads between the Gateway and low Lunar orbit. The tug should be reusable and refuelable at the Gateway. It should be capable of transporting non-crewed payloads, to include lunar sample return payloads, other science platforms, landers, and commercial assets.

The tug should be capable of being launched either on a single commercial launch vehicle, or co-manifested on a single flight of the SLS. It should be refuelable from supplies delivered via commercial launch vehicles to the Gateway. It should have the capability to perform one-way transfers of payloads either from Gateway to low Lunar orbit, or from low Lunar orbit to Gateway; in either mode, it should be capable of returning itself to Gateway for refueling. The tug should be ready to begin operations in 2025.

Teams should describe the concept of operations for their tug, from initial deployment, to payload transfer modes, including identifying capabilities to transfer payloads to other destinations besides low-Lunar orbit (e.g. Lagrange points). Teams should describe the design of the tug, including mass, power, geometry, and necessary technical capability developments, keeping in mind the tug’s 2025 operational date and NASA’s human exploration strategic principle of fiscal realism. Teams should also identify relevant use cases for the tug, and the frequency with which the tug can support those use cases. Teams should describe the concept of operations for refueling the tug, and determine the likely lifetime of the system prior to needing replacement.



The Gateway is envisioned as a small lunar orbiting outpost designed to support four visiting crewmembers about once/year (for 30 days) with construction beginning in 2022. The Gateway is likely to include two habitation/utilization elements and an airlock during the latter stages. When the crew is not present, the Gateway will be used to continue experiments or technology demonstrations designed to improve Gateway performance and/or prepare for designs necessary to support Mars missions. There are concepts for returning lunar and Mars samples to the Gateway for transfer to Earth by the SLS/Orion systems and potentially refueling small lunar landers for reuse. NASA also hopes to provide the Gateway as a platform for commercial or international entities seeking achievement of their own goals, outside of NASA’s needs, including periodic occupancy by their own astronauts.

The Gateway will include an external robotic arm for inspections, berthing and external experiment management. Uncrewed logistics flights are expected to provide crew/Gateway resources and utilization payloads (about 1-2 per year) and the external arm may be employed to exchange externally-mounted Gateway experiments from similar logistics vehicle locations to avoid exposure from internal Gateway contaminants or due to experiment size. NASA, international and domestic partners will design, build and deliver elements of the Gateway, much of which will conform to interoperability standards now in development with those same communities. Contingency EVA by crewmembers is possible, but not expected for regular operations – the plan is to mainly rely on the robotic arm. While the majority of science experiments are expected to be externally mounted, the internal experiments are likely to be human research in nature as well as technology experiments.

  • Dormancy of crew-related systems and environmental controls is likely with the Gateway, while robotic interaction with crew is possible or perhaps desired during crewed operations.
  • Crew presence will drive the design of a number of interfaces, yet automation and remote control from Earth will be used for the majority of the Gateway lifetime. Automation capabilities are likely necessary for troubleshooting Gateway systems and experiment operations during non-crewed periods, including automated fault detection, diagnosis and response. Proposals for robotic activities include a smaller internal 'walking' arm, with associated mounting fixtures or rails within the Gateway for mobility. The internal arm is sized to pass through the science airlock to support external activities such as repair of the external arm.
  • Logistics flights are currently packaged to allow offloading by crew with free volumes for crew access, automated approaches might have advantages.

Given the Gateway’s need for automation for continuous operations when the Gateway is uncrewed (~11 months/year), opportunities exist to optimize the internal designs for crew interaction, robotic interaction, science/payload experiment packaging, standardized experiment interfaces and overall logistics systems for both when the crew is at the Gateway and in uncrewed mode. This would also demonstrate methodologies and technologies directly applicable for the longer duration Mars missions and missions and surface operations envisioned to precede the delivery of crews to Mars or possibly the surface of the Moon.

RASCAL respondents are asked to come up with utilization scenarios and systems concepts addressing those scenarios for the 11 month uncrewed Gateway period. These scenarios should address automated logistics management, critical fault detection and maintenance, supportable science, technology demonstration and commercial applications in the absence of crew being on the Gateway. Respondents can derive their systems from existing experiment facilities used on Shuttle and ISS or develop their own as needed to address Gateway-unique operations. Implications on Gateway systems such as environmental control, computing, robotics, communications, power and thermal need to be assessed. Crew activities just prior to leaving the Gateway and upon initially returning to the Gateway needed to support the uncrewed period should also be assessed. Respondents can assume approximately one month of Gateway reconfiguration/stabilization/system evaluation preceding the crew arrival while two weeks are necessary to return to uncrewed operational status.

The reference Gateway configuration for this assessment can be found at this link:

Proposed designs should be consistent with human spacecraft requirements addressed in NASA Technical Standards 3000 and 3001 and NASA’s Human Integration Design Handbook (HIDH), and the physiological countermeasures identified in NASA standards should be addressed.



The Gateway is being built to enable sustained human missions beyond Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). NASA plans to use the Gateway to enable human access to the surface of the Moon and eventually to support human missions to the Mars system. The Gateway will operate in a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) about the Moon. This orbit can facilitate human access to the lunar surface given the propulsive performance limitations of the Orion crew vehicle currently under development, while minimizing station-keeping requirements for the Gateway.

RASC-AL respondents are challenged to come up with concepts for crewed lunar surface access and a campaign that allows repeated surface missions to establish a research station at or near one of the Moon’s poles. The architecture should leverage current NASA capability investments, as well as existing or anticipated (near-term) commercial and international launch vehicles, in space propulsion capabilities, and lunar surface systems. Architectures cannot be dependent on lunar-derived in-situ resources at the beginning, but should be capable of evolving into an architecture that could leverage some lunar developed propellants if/when they become available.

Primary Constraints:

  • Crew is delivered from Earth to the Gateway via NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion
  • Crew returns to Earth from Gateway via Orion
  • A reusable ascent/descent cabin/vehicle is based at the Gateway, where it is resupplied and refueled between lunar missions
  • The lander must accommodate two mission modes (near polar location at a minimum):
    • 6 days on the surface with 2 crew and 500 kg of cargo – no pre-deployed support infrastructure
    • 2 days on the surface with 4 crew and 100 kg of cargo – longer stays enabled by pre-deployed infrastructure (rovers, habitats, etc.)
    • Both above mission modes must also accommodate the crew during their transit to and from the lunar surface
  • Initial architecture and program model that is not “dead-ended” and facilitates evolution from initial capability to a model that leverages commercial services in order to reduce costs for sustained crew access to the lunar surface.
  • Open for trade:
    • Distribution, number, location, and staging of propulsive elements (single stage, braking stages, descent modules, ascent modules, etc.)
    • Types of propellant and propulsion systems
    • Propellant resupply strategy (anticipated launch vehicles, depots, etc.)
    • System procurement mechanisms
    • Evolution path of NASA and commercial capabilities
  • Considerations:
    • Impact of elements on the Gateway (controllability, power, thermal, etc.)
    • Number of SLS launches (ideal would be one per human lunar mission once the reusable ascent/descent vehicle is delivered to the Gateway with the remaining launches provided by commercial or international partners)
    • Technology readiness and cost to support a crewed lunar mission from the Gateway in 2028

Proposed designs should be consistent with human spacecraft requirements addressed in NASA Technical Standards 3000 and 3001 and NASA’s Human Integration Design Handbook (HIDH), and the physiological countermeasures identified in NASA standards should be addressed.


  • Submit a 5-7 page mid-project review – due March 28, 2019

  • Judges will be looking for substantial progress in concept design, development and analysis.

  • Tables and infographics are encouraged where appropriate.

  • Submit a 15-page written technical report - due May 30, 2019

  • Prepare a poster to be presented at the RASC-AL Forum

  • Give a 30 minute oral presentation, with an additional 10 minutes of Q&A at the RASC-AL Forum

Evaluation / Scoring

The Steering Committee is comprised of NASA and industry experts who will evaluate and score the competition between participating teams. Design projects will be evaluated and judged based on adherence to the RASC-AL Themes.


The detailed Project Evaluation Form can be found on the Requirements & Forms page on the RASC-AL website.

  • Synergistic applications of NASA’s planned current investments.

  • Supporting engineering analysis.

  • Unique combinations of the planned elements with new innovative capabilities/technologies to support crewed and robotic exploration of the solar system.

  • Realistic assessment of costs for technology maturation, system development, and production and operations.

  • Adherence to the requirements and constraints of the selected topic and the design competition;

  • Synergistic application and supporting original engineering analysis of innovative capabilities and/or new technologies for evolutionary architecture development to enable future missions, reduce cost, and/or improve safety;

  • Technical merit and rationale of mission operations in support of an exciting and sustainable space exploration program;

  • Key technologies, including technology readiness levels (TRLs), as well as the systems engineering and architectural trades that guide the recommended approach;

  • Reliability and human safety consideration in trading various design options;

  • Realistic assessment of project schedule and test plan, as well as realistic development and annual operating costs (i.e., budget);

  • Realistic assessment of partnering and cost sharing scenarios based upon commercial profitability and the ability of international partners to participate given their limited budgets.

Specific information and evaluation criteria for each submission can be found on the Deliverables page under each section.


The top two overall winning teams will be awarded with a travel stipend to present their concept at an aerospace conference, such as AIAA Space 2019 or IAC 2019.


  • First Place – Undergraduate
  • First Place – Graduate
  • Best in Theme
  • The PEACH award

Lewis Peach served as the Chairman of the RASC-AL Steering Committee for more than a decade as an inspirational leader, mentor, and friend. To honor Lewis’ ever-present, inspiring love of space exploration and learning, and for his enduring commitment to innovation and excellence, an annual RASC-AL innovation award has been established and will bear his name as the “Pioneering Exceptional Achievement Concept Honor” Award.”  The PEACH will recognize the most innovative idea or meaningful concept presented at the RASC-AL Forum.  This award represents the incredible accomplishments Lewis made to space exploration, and links to the future promise of bright RASC-AL students who will hopefully follow in Lewis’ footsteps, blazing new trails for space exploration.

Participation Awards / Stipends

Teams presenting at the Forum will receive a monetary award to facilitate full participation in the RASC-AL Forum.