Virginia Tech students are inventing the future by designing new habitats for astronauts. When the International Space Station completes its mission in 2024, a new station will be needed to replace it, a station capable of also transporting a crew to Mars.

For several years, NASA, in partnership with the National Institute of Aerospace, has been soliciting fresh design concepts from students through the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts — Academic Linkage, or RASC-AL, competition. For three out of five years, a student team from the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering at Virginia Tech has taken first place overall.

The latest design challenge required students to make a cost-effective habitat that could also serve as a Mars transit habitat. At the Cocoa Beach, Florida, competition, this year’s team presented their concept for Project Theseus, a low-Earth orbit (LEO) habitat that could replace the International Space Station and eventually transport crew members to Mars. The team won first for their category, first in undergraduate teams, and first overall for the RASC-AL competition.

“The design has many unique features, including a hybrid, rigid-inflatable structure, an electrostatic station-keeping thruster, a laser-based communication system, and a two-bed carbon molecular sieve for CO2 removal,” team member Joe Scalora said. “In comparison with the other designs showcased at RASC-AL's forum, Project Theseus displayed an understanding and application of real engineering principles. The station's size, launch sequence, solar panel design, and business model accurately represented a possible solution to the steering committee.”

Competition for acceptance is stiff, as student teams must pass two checkpoints in a yearlong trial before being authorized to officially compete. If they are selected, teams receive a travel grant to present their final concepts at a technical conference.

“The team did a good job in their systems engineering approach, documenting their design, and presenting it to the judges,” said Kevin Shinpaugh, adjunct faculty advisor in aerospace engineering and director of information technology at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech.

 “The design provided many of the capabilities of the International Space Station in a much smaller and cheaper-to-build-and-maintain space station,” Shinpaugh continued. “The station can be modified in the future for supporting humans in a trip to Mars. It was a very challenging competition against some great colleagues.”

This year’s team members include Keith Bahm, of Richmond, Virginia.; Troy Bray, of Charlottesville, Virginia.; Michael Crain, of Spotsylvania, Virginia.; Christian Dwyer, of Spotsylvania, Virginia.; Benjamin Lyon, of Fredricksburg, Pennsylvania.; Alex Orellana, of Bristow, Virginia.; Angel Ortiz, of Barcelona, Spain; Joe Scalora, of West Orange, New Jersey.; Robert Scheible, of Springfield, Virginia.; Evan Schwartz, of Herndon, Virginia.; Paul Stellato III, of Collegeville, Pennsylvania.; and John Mulvaney, of Versailles, Kentucky. All members are recent graduates of the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering at Virginia Tech.

As the capstone to the RASC-AL competition, the team will present the project at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SPACE forum in Orlando, Florida.

Photo of the RASC-AL team with their certificates.

RASC-AL team members post with their winning design.
From left to right: Keith Bahm, Christian Dwyer, Rob Scheible, Paul Stellato III, Joe Scalora, Mike Crain, Evan Schwartz, Angel Ortiz, Ben Lyon. Not pictured: Troy Bray, John Mulvaney, and Alex Orellana
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