Competition Basics

NASA is pioneering new ways to learn how to live and explore space as we extend humanity’s presence further into the solar system. The 2020 RASC-AL Competition is seeking undergraduate and graduate teams to develop new concepts that leverage innovations to improve our ability to operate in space and on distant planetary bodies. This year’s themes range from expanding on how we use current and future assets in cis-lunar space to designing systems and architectures for exploring the Moon and Mars. Each team’s response should address novel and robust applications to support expanding humanity’s ability to thrive beyond Earth.


The RASC-AL Program is open to undergraduate and graduate students majoring in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics at accredited U.S.-based colleges (including community colleges) and universities. 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.
  • One faculty advisor is required to attend the Forum with each undergraduate team, and is a condition for acceptance into the RASC-AL Competition.
  • An individual may join more than one team.
  • A faculty advisor may advise more than one team.
  • A university may submit more than one proposal.

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


Exploration of the lunar surface will require mobility options that can operate robotically. Ideally, these systems can also more directly support human exploration when crews arrive. This theme solicits designs for a multi-purpose rover that can support robotic exploration of the lunar South Pole as well as expand a human crew’s range by serving as unpressurized mobility. The rover should be able to support high priority science on the Moon, provide reconnaissance of future human landing sites, demonstrate technologies and capabilities needed for human exploration, deploy infrastructure used for later human missions, and/or perform other risk reduction activities before the next human lunar landing in 2024. When crew arrive, they will be able to reconfigure the rover to use as a two-person unpressurized rover during a ~6-day mission. Upon completion of the crew mission, they will reconfigure the rover to return to its robotic operations. The rover’s mass would be limited to 300 kg, and would need to include all capabilities to support both modes of operation. The cost to develop and produce the rover is limited to $300M in FY20 dollars.

For this theme, the proposed concept will define what capabilities the rover has while operating robotically, how the rover will serve as unpressurized mobility for two crew, and how the crew will transition the rover between both modes of operation (robotic and human). The proposed concept should not include the architectures for launching and landing the rover. The proposed concept will justify that all capabilities would be available for a launch date in 2023, for robotic operations prior to crew arrival in 2024.

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.



Future missions to Mars will require the crew to survive long durations in space in microgravity followed by a transition to the partial gravity of Mars. The International Space Station (ISS) has the potential to serve as an analog to the in-space transit phase of a Mars mission, with a subsequent landing on Earth or the Moon and return to ISS representing the surface mission. In this theme, teams will develop a Mars mission analog to prove out the needed technologies for a four-crew mission to Mars. The ISS and its crew can be used to simulate the spacecraft and time spent in transit. Key aspects of the use of ISS and landing on Earth or the Moon as an analog to a Mars mission include, but are not limited to:

  • Operations concept for dependencies on mission control support, including realistic time delays.
  • Logistics, including crew consumables, crew health and exercise support, system maintenance, and sparing plans.
  • Use of spacecraft volumes appropriate to the transit phase and surface mission for a crew of four.
  • Crew activities for transit operations and surface missions, including identification of key technical challenges.
  • The effects of a yearlong exposure to microgravity during transit, followed by unassisted acclimation to a gravity field during entry and upon landing at the surface analog.
  • Simulation of Mars ascent through a return to the ISS.

Teams should leverage existing or planned NASA capabilities for commercial crew access to ISS, as well as NASA’s potential lunar access capabilities that will exist in 2024 and beyond. Teams can propose reasonable modification to the ISS and its mission control support. Team products for this theme should include sequences and durations of events for the analog mission, rationale for the ordering of those events, locations and descriptions of relevant ground analogs for the Mars surface mission, and transportation options to and from the ISS. Teams should also document the overall strategy for one or more ISS Mars analogs, how each analog informs the next, and how they culminate with a Mars mission simulation to the surface of the Moon by the end of the 2020s. Teams should consider how their analog mission fits within the scope of NASA’s expected budget for human exploration.

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.



NASA is returning humans to the Moon in 2024 in preparation for enabling the first human landing on Mars. The first human mission to Mars will represent a major milestone in humanity’s journey beyond Earth, as well as represent an opportunity to search for life on another world. As such, the first mission will prove out the capabilities that are needed for longer-duration future missions to Mars, while still achieving significant progress in space exploration.

For this theme, the teams will design a Mars mission with a short duration surface stay. The objectives of the mission are to achieve the first human landing on another planet, and to search for life on Mars. Major design criteria for the Mars mission include:

  • A crew of four for the mission, with two going to the surface of Mars while two remain in orbit to support the surface mission.
  • The surface mission will last approximately 30 days.
  • The crew will have access to a pressurized rover to enable mobile exploration around the landing site. This rover will be capable of drilling core samples to support the search for life.
    • Teams should include details about their rover’s design
  • The mission will leave from Earth no later than December 31st, 2035.
  • Up to 3 landers, each with a capacity to deliver 22 t to the surface of Mars, can be used for deploying all surface elements, including (but not limited to) the ascent vehicle, ascent propellant, pressurized rover, and crew.

Teams may explore a variety of architectures to enable the launch, transportation, and execution of the mission; however, given the bold timeline for human exploration to both the Moon and Mars, careful attention should be paid to the realistic use of technologies and capabilities that can affordably be ready to use within that timeline. In addition, teams should consider how their Mars mission architecture fits within the scope of NASA’s expected budget for human exploration.

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.



Cislunar space consists of the spherical volume of space with its radius defined by the distance between Earth and Moon, including all five Lagrange points and the lunar surface. It represents a prime environment for future business opportunities that improve life on Earth through the use of space. Many studies have identified tourism, minerals extraction, internment/burial, and in-situ propellant production as potential markets in cislunar space. However, other opportunities besides these also have the potential to expand the economic sphere beyond Earth’s surface.

In this theme, teams will identify, define, and prepare a cash flow analysis for a commercial cislunar business. Excluded business ideas are tourism, minerals extraction, internment/burial and ISRU propellant production. Business development Authority to Proceed (ATP) is assumed to be January 2, 2021.

Describe the business being proposed. What product is being offered? Who are the customers? Who are the suppliers? What facilities, equipment and/or personnel are needed? State where the business is located (Earth orbit, Lagrange point, lunar orbit, lunar surface) and why. How will the necessary equipment, facilities and/or personnel be transported to the place of operations? How will the product be made? Clearly define what is inside and outside the business box.

Develop requirements for the facilities, equipment and/or personnel. What are the functional, performance, environmental, availability, reliability and operational requirements of the systems, elements and/or subsystems? What is the production rate (missions per year, widgets per month, kg/hr)?

Create conceptual design(s) necessary for the business. Provide 3D CAD graphics of the systems, elements and/or facilities needed to operate the business. Prepare subsystem schematics with mass and dimensional characteristics.

Development schedule and cash flow estimates. Provide a Gantt chart schedule from ATP through DDT&E and deployment to initial operating capability (lasting a period of up to 5 years) plus 5 years of operations. Generate cost estimates and annual allocations for development, deployment and operations. Define a reference business model and estimate revenue and net cash flow through year five of operations.

Risk assessment. Identify and define technical and business risks along with mitigation approaches.

Describe the business strategy. Will this be a public-private-partnership, a privately funded entity, a debt and equity play, or a third-party investment activity? Is there an exit strategy, and if so, what is it (e.g., retain ownership, buy out investors, sell, IPO, close)?



Both the Gateway and the future Deep Space Transport for Mars missions will need to be able to enable utilization and maintenance of science payloads while uncrewed. Utilization includes support for science payloads, including testing of how biological organisms and physical systems respond to the environments of missions in cislunar and interplanetary space. Both the Gateway and the Deep Space Transport will also require maintenance for the systems and hardware supporting the science payloads during long periods of uncrewed operations (between lunar missions for the Gateway; during Mars surface missions for the Deep Space Transport).

For this theme, teams will develop a concept for a system that can autonomously support utilization and/or maintenance of science payloads on the Gateway and/or Mars Deep Space Transport. For utilization-based concepts, teams should identify how their concept can provide for needs of science payloads, including but not limited to:

  • Data downlink and command uplink
  • Automated data capture (e.g., sensors for real-time report out etc.)
  • Accommodation of mass, volume, and center of gravity needs
  • Support for any environmental maintenance and control needed by the payload
  • How the concept does or does not support all phases of the payload, from integration for launch through landing operations (if relevant)
  • Ability to support live samples (e.g., cells, yeast, fish, plants, invertebrate species, microbes, rodents etc.) to be flown for the duration of the mission
  • Environmental monitoring of the closed environment or biological system (radiation, acceleration, temperature, C02, etc.).

For maintenance-based concepts, teams should identify how their concept supports uncrewed (and potentially additional support for crewed) operations of the Gateway and/or Mars Deep Space Transport, including but not limited to:

  • What maintenance tasks the concept performs
  • How the concept detects anomalies and verifies successful repair and/or maintenance
  • Situational awareness needs for the concept (e.g. what kinds of sensing does it need)

For either category of concept, teams should describe the physical systems needed, including mass, power, volume, and data needs. Teams should also describe what technologies or capabilities are needed, and assess their readiness to be deployed for the Gateway (in the mid 2020s) and/or the Mars Deep Space Transport (in the early 2030s). Teams should also assess the costs to develop, deploy, and operate their concept. Teams are constrained to an overall budget of $2M, and will ideally look into repurposing existing technologies and equipment to defray costs.

NEW! Capability Demonstration Requirement for Theme 5: Teams responding to Theme 5 must also develop and provide a demonstration of their concept. Examples of a demonstration could include an advanced virtual reality simulation or a prototype of part or all of the concept. This demonstration will be presented at the RASC-AL Forum in lieu of a poster, and an additional $5,000 stipend will be awarded to select teams for development of the simulation or prototype.

Demonstration of proposed capability should be at the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) level. The PDR demonstrates that the overall program preliminary design meets all requirements with acceptable risk and within the cost and schedule constraints and establishes the basis for proceeding with detailed design. It shows that the correct design options have been selected, interfaces have been identified, and verification methods have been described. Full baseline cost and schedules, as well as all risk assessment, management systems, and metrics are presented. (NPR 7120.5D p.30 on Resources Page)


  • Submit a 15-page written technical report - due May 28, 2020

  • Prepare a poster (if competing in Themes 1-4) or prototype (if competing in Theme 5) 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 approaches/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 approaches, 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 2020.


  • 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 $6,000 monetary award to facilitate full participation in the RASC-AL Forum.
Special Note: RASC-AL stipends may not be used to support travel for federal employees acting within the scope of employment (this includes co-op students with civil servant status).

Up to $5,000 in extra prototype development funding will be available to selected teams responding to Theme 5.