Four University of Colorado juniors are back from NASA's Langley Research Center, where they competed Wednesday as finalists in that agency's BIG Idea Challenge.
The competition tasked students with advancing concepts for in-space assembly of spacecraft, particularly tugs, powered by solar propulsion.
NASA's challenge to competing students was that their design enable the transfer of payloads from low-Earth orbit to an orbit around the moon, or to a lunar distant retrograde orbit.
CU's group, whose project was dubbed "Odysseus," was one of five selected as finalists who made their pitch for an in-orbit assembly design of a spacecraft that can deliver cargo from low-Earth to lunar and Martian orbits.
The competition, which was held Wednesday, was won by a team from Tulane University.
But the CU team, comprised of juniors Justin Norman, Olivia Zanoni, Gerardo Pulido and Gabriel Walker, nevertheless distinguished itself, according to Brian Sanders, deputy director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, who accompanied them to Hampton, Va., returning to Colorado late Thursday night.
"I'm incredibly proud of what the students did, both in terms of paper and presentation, and the feedback we got after the competition from the judges was amazing," said Sanders.
"These students put in hundreds of hours with great simulations, doing great trade studies, to formulate a mission concept that was highly recognized by the judges as being really unique and practical yet cutting edge."
Walker, Norman and Pulido are students in the Ann and H. J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, while Zanoni is in the Engineering Physics program associated with the Department of Physics. All are members of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, which provides mostly undergraduate students with hands-on experience in designing, building and flying spacecraft.
The CU students didn't win, and also did not claim runner-up honors — that prize went to the team from the University of Maryland — but they hardly feel defeated.
"We made it. We were top 5, out of 29 teams in the nation," said Norman, a Boulder native. "To be able to be in the top-17 percentile is an honor in itself."
"It was humbling to see other people's designs. They came up with some just outstanding innovative things that just really blew my mind," he said. "The people who won, they deserved it. Their design was totally out of the box, and totally innovative."
The CU team, Norman said, was the only finalist to meet all of the original design requirements, but that wasn't enough to win out over the innovation of other finalists.
Sanders agreed that the students' not winning didn't mean their paper and presentation were in vain.
"Each team brought its own unique vision and solution, and that was commented and remarked upon by the NASA center officials. And they were hoping to collect some of those ideas and further incubate them, and use them as seeds to grow potential future NASA missions," Sanders said.
Elements of all five finalists' projects, Sanders said, could influence future NASA project designs.
"That's exactly what they're hoping to do," Sanders said, "is, take broad brush strokes of concepts from all over the country, elements of proposals one, two, three, four and five, and be able to hopefully influence what NASA is able to do, out of their Game Changing division out at Langley."
Norman returned to Boulder all that more determined to forge a future in aerospace engineering.
"You have to fail before you find success in this field," he said. "If anything, it has made me want to double my efforts toward a career path in that direction.
"I have seen what the bar was raised to by other teams. It's really high. It's good that there's such a high bar, because that's what it takes to do the things we're trying to do."
Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/chasbrennan
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