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Rules for Inspiration Mars International Student Design Competition

Students to propose design concepts for Inspiration Mars mission

[For all email inquiries, please contact: inspiration@marssociety.org.] 


During the 16th Annual International Mars Society Convention, the Mars Society announced the launch of an international engineering competition for student teams to propose design concepts for the architecture of the Inspiration Mars mission.  The contest is open to university engineering student teams from anywhere in the world.

Inspiration Mars Executive Director Dennis Tito and Program Manager Taber MacCallum were present for the announcement. “Inspiration Mars is looking for the most creative ideas from engineers all over the world,” said Tito. “Furthermore, we want to engage the explorers of tomorrow with a real and exciting mission, and demonstrate what a powerful force space exploration can be in inspiring young people to develop their talent. This contest will accomplish both of those objectives.”

Commenting on the contest, Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin said, “The Mars Society is delighted to lead this effort. This contest will provide an opportunity for legions of young engineers to directly contribute their talent to this breakthrough project to open the space frontier.” 



The requirement is to design a two-person Mars flyby mission for 2018 as cheaply, safely and simply as possible. All other design variables are open.

Alumni, professors and other university staff may participate as well, but the teams must be predominantly composed of and led by university students. All competition presentations must be completed exclusively by students. Teams will be required to submit their design reports in writing by March 15, 2014. From there, a down-select will occur with the top 10 finalist teams invited to present and defend their designs before a panel of six judges chosen (two each) by the Mars Society, Inspiration Mars and NASA. The presentations will take place during a public event at NASA Ames Research Center in April 2014.

Designs will be evaluated using a scoring system, allocating a maximum of 30 points for cost, 30 points for technical quality of the design, 20 points for operational simplicity and 20 points for schedule with a maximum total of 100 points.

The contest is open to university-based teams from any country in the world.

The page limit for the design reports is 50 pages, using 12 point type and 1” margins. Smaller type may be used in figures, so long as it is legible. The report may include references to supporting backup material, which may include published books or papers, as well as additional material generated by the team and posted on the team’s website along with the report by March 15, 2014. However there is no guarantee that the judges will read such material, so the 50 page design reports should be as complete and self-contained as possible. Design reports should be in English. Verbal presentations by finalists will also be in English; however teams from countries with other native languages may make use of a translator, provided they make such arrangements themselves.

The first place team will receive a prize of $10,000, an all-expenses paid trip to the 2014 international Mars Society convention and a trophy to be presented by Dennis Tito at that event. Prizes of $5,000, $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 will also be awarded for second through fifth place.

All designs submitted will be published by the Mars Society, and Inspiration Mars will be given non-exclusive rights to make use of any ideas contained therein.

Report/Presentation FAQs

1. Do references and bibliography material count towards the 50 page limit?


2. If I want to make changes/updates after I submit my report what should I do?

    Email a new report, the last one received before the deadline will be reviewed.

3. When are the oral presentations scheduled?

    If you are deemed a top 10 finalist we will contact the team leader to determine a date for the oral presentation. No exact date has been set.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. To what address should questions about the contest be addressed?


  1. Is a letter of intent to compete required?

All teams wishing to compete should submit a letter of intent by email to the Mars Society no later than January 30, 2014. Earlier submission is advantageous, however, as it will insure that you are kept informed of any changes and supplied with the answers to any questions posed by other teams. The letter should include the team name, university or universities participating, and email and postal addresses for at least two team contacts.

Sample Letter of Intent

  1. Can two or more universities join forces to form a team?


  1. Can one university split forces to form more than one team?


  1. Can one individual take part in more than one team?


  1. Can graduate students participate?

Yes. The contest makes no distinction between graduate and undergraduate students.

  1. Can high school students participate?

Yes, if they join a university-based team.

  1. Do the students need to be engineering majors?

No. All students may participate. Those without scientific backgrounds can be of great assistance in many areas, including writing, illustrating, and providing animations in support of the project.

  1. Will paper copies of the reports be needed?

No. Reports should be sent via email in pdf format. Reports that are too long to send by email may be sent via drop box.

  1. May videos be included as part of the design reports or verbal presentations?

Teams may include links to up to three videos in their written reports, collectively lasting no more than 15 minutes. Teams may use up to three videos during their verbal presentations, however such videos should not collectively take up more than 15 minutes of the presentation time. The Mars Society will have non-exclusive rights to publish such videos. Videos are not required.

  1. Are teams required to use the trajectory published by Inspiration Mars?

No. Teams may use any trajectory they want, provided that it is a valid trajectory for 2018.

  1. Are teams required to conform their engineering designs to that published by Inspiration Mars?

No. Teams should use their engineering judgment to develop the best possible two-person Mars flyby mission they can. They are free to use engineering design choices published by Inspiration Mars, other organizations, or original choices. choices. Designs will judged based on their own merits.

  1. What needs to be included in the design?

The contest is for an end-to-end mission design, and thus should be as comprehensive as possible. Essential parts include choice or design of the trajectory, launch vehicle or vehicles, flight systems, and concept of operations. Flight system design should be sure to include environmental control and life support systems, solar flare protection, attitude control, navigation, communication, and reentry and landing technology. A schedule and a cost estimate for the program should also be included.

  1. What technologies may be employed?

You are free to select from any technology, launch vehicle, or flight system that is currently operational or which can be plausibly argued to be potentially operational by 2018.

  1. What happens if the judges consider our design to be technically sound, but unlikely to meet the 2018 schedule?

Twenty of the 100 contest points concern schedule, and you will lose part or all of them if your design is deemed dubious or impossible for 2018 launch. However the design will still be considered for the remaining 80 points on its technical, cost, and operational merits, provided that you can show that it is viable for use on a trajectory that is valid during the 2020 launch opportunity. A further 20 points will be deducted from your score if your design is not viable to meet the 2020 schedule. The choice of technologies, launch vehicles, or flight systems unlikely to be available by 2022 will cause disqualification.

  1. What propulsion technology may be used?

In line with the above, permissible propulsion technologies include chemical rockets, solar electric propulsion, and gravity assists. Non permissible choices include nuclear electric, nuclear thermal, solar thermal, solar sails, fusion and antimatter rockets, and skyhooks.

  1. If a technology is currently already under development by NASA or another organization, do we need to count its development cost in our cost estimate?

No. If someone else is paying for the development, that development cost to your mission is zero, and you simply need to account for its recurring sales cost.

  1. What size individuals should be baselined for calculating life support requirements?

You should use one average sized man and one average sized woman as your design baseline.

  1. What gravity assists may we use?

You may use any Earth, Moon, Mars, or Venus gravity assist that is valid for the trajectory that you choose. However contestants should be aware that such maneuvers may detract from the operability of their mission, particularly if they impose excessively narrow launch windows.

  1. May we make use of the ISS, or other existing US or non-American government space facilities, including the Deep Space Tracking Network, in our designs?

Yes. But if there are costs involved to obtain such support, you must account for them, either with quotes or estimates.

  1. May we use on-orbit assembly?

Yes. However contestants should be aware that excessively complex orbital assembly sequences may detract from the operability of their mission.

  1. Are any points awarded for achieving science objectives that go beyond the bare requirement of sending two people on a Mars flyby and retuning them safely to Earth?

Yes. Five of the 30 points for technical quality will be awarded for the mission science program. Science to be to done during the mission could include engineering, biomedical, or natural scientific research. Such points are awarded because enhanced science both increases the value of the mission itself as well as its prospects for gaining funding from both public and private sources.

  1. Are any points awarded for proposing a business plan that reduces program costs through sale of media rights, advertising, crowdsourcing, or similar enterprises?

No. Other than through mission enhancements as noted above, it is assumed that all mission designs have equal potential for obtaining such income streams.

  1. Are any points awarded for having flight systems who capabilities exceed the mission requirements?

Yes, in the sense that having margin is always useful and increases the robustness, and thus technical quality, of the design.

  1. Are any points awarded for designs that are superior from a human-factors point of view?

Yes. Quality of crew accommodations will be considered as part of the overall technical quality of the design. However the central consideration will be crew health and safety.

  1. How will radiation risk be evaluated?

Radiation risk will be evaluated using BEIR based estimates which assume a 1% risk of fatal cancer sometime later in life for a 60 rem (0.6 Sievert) extended-period dose, and a linear no threshold methodology. However radiation is only one part of mission risk. Teams should design their missions to strive to reduce overall mission risk.

  1. Will there be prizes awarded for special features of the design, such as re-entry technology or life support?

Possibly. If there are standout subsystem designs proposed, they will be noted and awarded appropriately.

  1. May teams consult with professionals from NASA, ESA, RSA, JPL, the aerospace industry, and other such organizations?

Yes. However all such consultations should be acknowledged in the design report.

  1. Should team members be listed collectively or by the section of the report they contributed to?

All team members should be listed as authors of the report. Identifying subsystem or section leads is not required, but is a good idea, as it can assist both Inspiration Mars and other potential future employers with identifying talent they may wish to hire.

  1. Where will updates and answers to additional questions relating to the contest be posted.

Such information will be posted at a dedicated contest link to be found at www.marssociety.org

  1. What are some useful references that can help provide background material in developing our designs?


1.      Dennis Tito, et al, “Feasibility Analysis for a Manned Mars Free-Return Mission in 2018.” Available at www.inspirationmars.org.

2.      Robert Zubrin with Richard Wagner, “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must,” The Free Press, NY, 1996, 2011.

3.      Michael D. Griffin and James R. French, “Space Vehicle Design.” AIAA Education Series, Washington DC, 1991.

4.      Roger Bate, Donald Mueller, and Jerry White, “Fundamentals of Astrodynamics,” Dover Publications, NY, 1971.

5.      Steve Matousek and Andrey Sergeyevsky, “To Mars and Back: 2002-2020: Ballistic Trajectory Data for the Mission Architect AIAA 98-4396. http://trs-new.jpl.nasa.gov/dspace/bitstream/2014/19496/1/98-0906.pdf See also the references contained in this paper, and other papers by the same authors.

6.      John R. Lamarsh, “Introduction to Nuclear Engineering.” Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, NY, 1975. Useful for Chapter 9, Radiation protection.