Tulane students beat out 28 schools in NASA BIG Idea Challenge


Six Tulane students designed a prototype of the spacecraft that one day could bring essentials to the next astronaut to set foot on the moon. 

Five of the students will serve as interns after winning NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing Idea challenge as their prize.

Participating teams created plans for an in-space assembled propulsion spacecraft meant to carry loads to the moon. The designs had to be solar-electric, meaning they needed to be powered by the sun. 

Tulane competed against 28 other schools last November before making it to the finals, where they faced off against four other teams at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

While many of the other teams participating in the BIG Idea Challenge consisted of aerospace engineering students, Tulane’s team was comprised of students from other fields of engineering, plus those from physics, economics and architecture. With no experience in space design or software, the Tulane students approached their design in an innovative way. 

“We decided that if we were going to compete against some aerospace engineers, we can’t beat them. We can’t find a better design than some people that have been studying this for their whole lives,” junior Ethan Gasta said. “So we decided to go a whole completely new route.”

The team members’ diversity of background and expertise allowed them to create and submit a completely original design.

“I think the fact that we did not approach the problem from a traditional aerospace background actually helped us innovate and propose some truly new ideas,” junior Max Woody said.

The layout of Tulane’s spacecraft included individualized pieces holding their own fuel, solar panels and propulsion sources that form together in space to make the larger spacecraft, which they called “The Sunflower.”

“It consisted of a repeated hexagonal pattern of solar arrays, which allowed the structure to be folded, manipulated and upgraded in a variety of ways,” Woody said.

Members credit the uniqueness of the design as the factor which set the team apart, ultimately winning them the competition and internships. Most of the other teams created four fairly similar designs that followed existing designs of others in the aerospace engineering field.

“… More than anything [the design] set us apart,” Robertson said. “We didn’t just have modification of an already thought-of spacecraft. We had a totally new concept.”

The win granted the students five internship posts at NASA facilities in either Langley or the Bay Area. This internship will provide these students with the opportunity to gain experience and knowledge as part of the leading organization in space and technological exploration. 

“I am thrilled to have been able to work with such talented, smart individuals and [to] represent Tulane University,” junior Matthew Gorban said. “This is an experience that I will cherish and one that will hopefully allow me to get my foot in the door of the aerospace engineering field.”

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