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Shelley Spears
Director, Education & Outreach

Shannon Verstynen
Outreach Program Manager

Higher Education Programs

Higher Education Programs

The National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) works alongside NASA Centers and STEM Industry professionals to provide university-level competitions that test the limits of possibility. NIA currently manages three such competition programs for NASA: the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkages (RASC-AL) Aerospace Competition, the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition, and the Break-through, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. These competitions challenge university-level students at U.S.-based institutions to develop pioneering ideas and concepts pertaining to the aerospace industry.

To learn more about each program, please review the summary of each program below, then visit their respective websites:

  • RASC-AL Aerospace ConceptsRASC-AL Logo (Seal only)

    The Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts–Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Aerospace Concepts Competition offers graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to become involved in high-level relevant aerospace research – addressing an overall mission architecture. Participating RASC-AL teams choose from a handful of themes that challenge them to develop innovative concepts for 1 G deep space stations or human missions to Mars, for example. Scenarios address novel and robust applications, with an objective of NASA sustaining a permanent and exciting space exploration program. NASA investments can be augmented by or used in conjunction with those from commercial and/or international partners.

    Student-teams present their research to a panel of NASA and industry experts at the annual RASC-AL Forum in Cocoa Beach, FL. The oral presentations are augmented by the submission of a technical paper and a research poster. Top winning teams are awarded with a secured presentation slot at the annual AIAA Space Conference, where they can present a condensed version of their RASC-AL concept.

    For more information, please visit the RASC-AL website at

  • RASC-AL Exploration Robo-OpsThe RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition (a.k.a., Robo-Ops) focuses on a specific system within an interplanetary mission – robotics. Robo-ops annually invites undergraduate and graduate students to create a multi-disciplinary team to build a planetary rover prototype and demonstrate its capabilities to perform a series of tasks in field tests at NASA’s Johnson Space Center’s (JSC) Rock Yard. Selected teams receive a small stipend to offset the cost of rover development. A unique component is that teams operate rovers remotely from the mission control center of their home universities, while a skeleton crew of other team members are permitted to join the rover at the JSC Rock yard to serve as the team’s on-site pit crew. This robotic manipulation (complete with communication delays) replicates how robots and astronauts will work together in the near future on human space exploration missions.

    Student teams are required to pass a mid-project review, submit a technical paper and poster, and conduct public and stakeholder engagement activities that demonstrates participatory exploration approaches for future NASA missions. This includes the development of a team website, blog or social media. Winning teams are awarded cash prizes.

    For more information, please visit the Robo-Ops website at

  • BIG Idea ChallengeBig-Idea-Logo-Final_Web

    The BIG Idea Challenge seeks novel and robust ideas and applications for generating lift using Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD, technology. Concepts can engage new approaches such as shape morphing and pneumatic actuation to dynamically alter the HIAD inflatable structure. Teams will design and analyze potential concepts and systems to provide the ability to achieve a modulated lift-to-drag ratio of 0.2 to 0.5 during hypersonic entry.

    Interested teams of three to five undergraduate and/or graduate students will submit white papers describing their BIG Idea. Selected teams will continue in the competition by submitting full technical papers on the concept. These efforts will culminate in up to four teams being asked to present their concept to a panel of NASA judges at the 2016 BIG Idea Forum to be held in April 2016 at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

    Each selected team will receive a $6,000 stipend to facilitate full participation in the forum. BIG Idea Challenge winners will receive offers to participate in paid internships with the Game Changing Development Program team at NASA Langley where they can potentially work towards a flight test of their concept.

    For more information, please visit the BIG Idea website at



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