Illinois Team Designs Lunar Outpost for RASC-AL Competition


The Illinois team's final design.
The Illinois team's final design.
An Illinois team employed several unique concepts in designing an in-space lunar outpost as part of the 2014 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition.

The Illinois team and 13 other university groups were challenged with designing a habitat and support system augmenting NASA’s Orion spacecraft to house a four-person team for a 30-day orbit between the Earth and the Moon. The National Institute of Aerospace, a non-profit research and graduate education institute near the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, sponsored the annual RASC-AL competition, held in Florida in mid-June.

The competition was intended as a test-bed mission to test technologies in preparation for longer manned missions.
Aerospace Engineering at Illinois undergraduate Christopher Lorenz said the Illinois team concentrated on these aspects to set their design apart:

  • The team provided for 3-D printing of spare parts, to replace any originals that might malfunction or become damaged.
  • The team planned for a unique orbital trajectory that used the full capacities of the Orion capsule. The Orion has been designed for deep space missions, so it is overpowered for the shorter-distance, intermediate orbit required of the competition. Because of that, Lorenz said, his team could increase the mass that the habitat could carry, allowing for more scientific equipment, better accommodations for the astronauts and better safety precautions.
  • The design called for the habitat to be tethered to the upper stage of the rocket, then spun up to create artificial gravity for reasons including helping the astronauts to retain muscle mass during the prolonged stay in space. “The artificial gravity was included to allow for the testing of the technology that might be used on future, even longer duration missions to deep space, such as a manned Mars mission, where these technologies would be crucial,” Lorenz explained.

Members of the Illinois team.
Members of the Illinois team.
“The feedback we got from the judges was very positive,” Lorenz said. “They mentioned that they enjoyed the completeness of our design and didn't have any large problems with our architecture.” Lorenz also won an individual award as best undergraduate presenter.

The total cost was estimated at $3.2 billion, with a launch planned for the year 2021. AE Prof. Vicki Coverstone advised the Illinois team, comprised of:

  • Chris Lorenz, AE, Team Lead/Cost Analysis – Organized team meetings and promoted communication between team members to ensure a cohesive mission architecture. Evaluated the total programmatic cost of the mission and developed a yearly budget to fit within NASA’s current budget environment.
  • William Asher, AE, Artificial Gravity System – Designed and optimized the artificial gravity system of the ALTER habitat to provide maximum crew comfort for minimum mass.
  • Alex Case, AE, Lead Structural Engineer – Developed novel habitat design featuring the innovative combined use of composite materials. This structure provides superior radiation protection and structural integrity while still having a relatively low mass.
  • Logan Damiani, AE, Launch Vehicle/Concept of Operations – Determined chosen launch vehicles to maximize overall mission performance while minimizing cost while ensuring compatibility with the designed payload. Created a graphical representation of the ALTER mission architecture.
  • Jordan Murphy, AE, CAD Modelling/Communications – Modelled the habitat exterior structure using CAD software. Designed the communications system of the habitat to allow for constant communication with ground stations.
  • Scott Neuhoff, AE, Orbital Mechanics – Modelled the trajectory of the habitat and crew to their final cis-lunar destination at the Lagrange point using trajectory modelling software (STK).
  • Jeff Pekosh, AE, 3D Printing System/Power/Thermal – Optimized 3D printing system to make the most of constrained volume in the space environment. Also analyzed the capabilities required and determined the ideal systems for both the power and thermal radiating components of the habitat.
  • Thomas Smith, AE, Structural Engineer/3D Printing – Analyzed the effectiveness of the habitat structure for protecting the crew. Specified a list of useful items that are able to be 3D printed for this mission.
  • Rick Wilhelmi, AE, Environmental Control and Life Support/Human Factors – Evaluated possible life support systems for their viability in our habitat design. Determined the best mitigation strategies for protecting the crew from radiation and deterioration in the reduced gravity environment.
  • Kelsey White, AE and Physics, Crew Accommodations – Designed the interior of the habitat to best suit the crew’s needs for a reduced gravity environment for minimum mass.