Competition Basics

NASA is embracing new paradigms in exploration that involve expanding our knowledge and learning how to live in space as we extend our presence into the solar system. The 2018 RASC-AL Competition is seeking undergraduate and graduate teams to develop new concepts that leverage innovations to improve our ability to travel between Earth and other destinations. This year’s themes range from improving upon existing concepts to developing new approaches for in-space transportation. 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 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.


2018 Themes Doc Pic


The current NASA baseline in-space stage for transporting crew and cargo between cis-lunar space and the Mars system is a hybrid concept consisting of a low-thrust Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system combined with a high-thrust chemical system. Much like hybrid cars here on Earth, this hybrid transport utilizes the high-thrust chemical system when additional acceleration is needed, such as to start and stop close to planetary bodies, and then switches to the more efficient low-thrust electric system deeper in space. This combined approach provides an efficient system with the potential for multiple reuses.

This theme challenges teams to design a version of this stage that uses innovative combinations of operations and technology to improve on the NASA baseline. Primary requirements for proposed reusable hybrid propulsion stage concepts include:

  • Launched partially fueled on a block 1A SLS, or partially fueled with the baseline habitat (~20 t without logistics) on a block 2B SLS (reference SLS planners guide)
  • Refuelable in cis-lunar space via propellant launched from Earth on SLS or any other launch system
  • Once fueled and provisioned in cis-lunar space:
    • can transport the baseline habitat with crew and logistics (~49 t total: 22 t hab and 27 t logistics) on a conjunction class round-trip mission to a 5-sol Mars orbit, departing from and returning to a lunar distant high-Earth orbit
    • can also transport (separately) a fully burdened Mars lander (~50 t) to a Mars 5-sol orbit, and return (stage only) back to cis-lunar space so the stage can be reused
  • Uses no more than 750 kW BOL (Beginning-of-Life) solar arrays
  • Nuclear-powered propulsion concepts are not allowed
  • Minimum 15-year lifetime (in space)
  • Capable of supporting, at a minimum, three trips to and from Mars

Capabilities and technologies implemented in this concept should be ready for deployment and operations by 2029 and fit into the existing NASA budget extrapolated out to that time.



The current NASA baseline vehicle for transporting crew and cargo between cis-lunar space and the Mars system is a hybrid concept consisting of a low-thrust Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system combined with a high-thrust chemical system interfaced to a large monolithic habitat that transports the crew to Mars and back on a ~1100-day conjunction class mission. This configuration assumes the crew can function for years in a microgravity environment with countermeasures limited to exercise and medical systems.

Theme 2 challenges teams to provide a Mars gravity level during the majority of the time the crew is on the conjunction class mission, while using the same hybrid propulsion stage described in Theme 1. In-space assembly may be used to enable this theme, as well as a broader spectrum of launch vehicles as needed. Primary requirements for proposed artificial gravity system concepts include:

  • All of the same requirements listed in Theme 1, with one exception:
  • Baseline habitat will be launched partially outfitted and supplied on a SLS block 1A or block 2B. The size and mass of the fully provisioned baseline habitat should be used, but augmentations and changes in floor plan can be considered for artificial gravity application.

Capabilities and technologies implemented in this concept should be ready for deployment and operations by 2029. Identity what additional budget authority is needed, if any, to enable this concept.



The reusable in-space transportation systems assumed in NASA Mars architectures and identified in Themes 1 and 2 require many metric tons of electric propulsion and chemical propellants to support each Mars mission.

Theme 3 challenges teams to design a system to provide these propellants, including the selection of ground infrastructure to process, load, and maintain the propellants on the launch vehicle(s) of choice, the cadence of the delivery fleet, the propellant tankers that deliver the propellants to the Deep Space Transport, and the systems on the tankers for maintaining and transferring the propellant and docking to the Deep Space Transport. Disposal/reuse of the tankers should also be considered.

Primary requirements for proposed propellant resupply capability concepts include:

  • Refueling of the Deep Space Transport occurs in cis-lunar space via propellant launched from Earth, on SLS or any other launch system
  • Propellant resupply must support one crewed orbital Mars mission every other opportunity beginning in 2033 and Mars surface mission cargo delivery beginning in 2037 (the requirements for which are available in the open literature, or can be derived from collaborating with a team working on Theme 1 or Theme 2), with the ability to be expanded to support crewed Mars surface missions later
  • Nuclear-powered propulsion concepts are not allowed

Capabilities and technologies implemented in this concept should be ready for deployment and operations by 2029. Identity what additional budget authority is needed, if any, to enable this concept.

Teams responding to Theme 3 may focus on one of the following options:

  • Option 1: Design the propellant resupply capability for the NASA baseline concept
  • Option 2: Partner/”team” with a university responding to either Theme 1 or Theme 2 to develop a propellant resupply capability for their deep space transport concept.
    • University A would still be competing with University B for RASC-AL categories, but preference would be given to teaming universities in the proposal and mid-term review gates if they are of good quality. This will be a more challenging approach, but better representative of how both Industry and NASA must partner with other organizations to solve complex engineering problems. Teams who have submitted an NOI and who are interested in pairing will be listed here within 24 hours, Monday-Friday. NIA can not facilitate pairing of teams beyond listing contact information.



The lunar polar regions have been identified as possible locations for water on the Moon. If water is available in abundance, it could have significant implications for lunar and cis-lunar space operations and settlement as a source of life support consumables, propellant, irrigation for plant growth, radiation shielding, fuel cell reactants, etc. However, there is limited knowledge about where and how to access potential resources at the poles.

Theme 4 challenges teams to design a scalable tele-operated robotic architecture that would initially consist of at least a single-use system to enable sample returns from the polar regions to a crewed Deep Space Gateway (DSG) operating in a near rectilinear orbit in cis-lunar space (Block 1). Block 2 would be an evolution of the architecture that would be reusable/refuelable to-and-from the DSG that would enable multiple sample returns and/or lunar surface payload delivery. The ultimate aim is to implement a reusable system. Primary requirements for the proposed architecture concepts include:

  • Concept of Operations:
    • The lunar surface systems and transfer vehicle are operated via teleoperation at the DSG
    • The lunar surface system locates and acquires a sample and delivers it to the ascent transfer vehicle(s)
    • The ascent transfer vehicle(s) ascends from the lunar surface and delivers the sample to the DSG
    • The contained sample is retrieved from the transfer vehicle(s) and can be placed in the DSG airlock so that it can return to Earth with the crew
    • The transfer vehicle can also be refueled, and outfitted as necessary with any new payloads that would be delivered to the surface
    • The transfer vehicle descends to the same location at the lunar South Pole or alternate polar location with the new payloads
    • The Block 1 ascent transfer vehicle shall be no heavier than 5000 kg in total wet mass on the lunar surface
  • The lunar surface systems, transfer vehicle(s), and any other hardware or propellant required to complete the mission (not including the DSG, or the propellant and new payload that are supplied at the DSG) are delivered via a single commercial launch from Earth.
  • Nuclear-powered propulsion and surface power concepts are not allowed.
  • In this theme, RASC-AL is looking for an architecture solution that is optimized around payload delivery capability, robustness, frequency, logistics needs, reusability, and scale. The architecture design and its assessment (cost, technology readiness, schedule, benefits, and risks) should reflect the scale of the mission.
  • The teams should attempt to identify possible synergies between Block 1 and Block 2 as well as the evolutionary roadmap from one Block to another.

Capabilities and technologies implemented in the architecture should be ready for deployment and operations by 2029. Identify the non-recurring and recurring investments for these concepts, either by NASA and/or a commercial enterprise.


  • Submit a 5-7 page mid-project review – due April 1st, 2018

  • 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 31, 2018

  • 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.


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 2018.


  • 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.