NASA seeks student designs for space missions


UT alumnus Payam Banazadeh spoke to students in STEM-related programs about an opportunity to work with NASA on Monday evening. 

Photo Credit: Jarrid Denman | Daily Texan Staff

Starting this year, NASA will give University students and faculty the opportunity to propose a mission concept that the space administration may actually use.

The Space Mission Design Challenge, presented by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, known as JPL, allows students and faculty to propose space mission concepts for review by a special committee of JPL engineers. The program has been previously offered to Stanford University and the University of Michigan.

One of the committee members, UT alumnus and JPL engineer Payam Banazadeh, said the challenge enhances teamwork between different departments at the University.

“I think the main benefit here is to connect the science students and science department to the engineering department,” Banazadeh said. “We want to show that, to be able to achieve any scientific goal, [there] is collaboration between the two different disciplines.”  

According to the challenge’s rules, the concept must either be science-driven or have a technology demonstration objective. Banazadeh said, depending on the capability of the designs, the committee will select four to five ideas from students and faculty.

In the fall, those selected will have the opportunity to work with aerospace engineering students at the University to develop the concept. The top two teams will travel to Pasadena, Calif., for a two-day design session with JPL engineers and scientists.

Aerospace engineering senior Tyler Bollman said he thinks the program will help students prepare for the industry.

“I think it’s a great way to get into the business, definitely from a student’s perspective, to straight into learning how the business is handled in a mission scenario,” Bollman said.

Aerospace engineering professor Wallace Fowler, who teaches Spacecraft Mission Design with engineers from the JPL providing input on the students’ final projects, said the Space Mission Design Challenge presents a fantastic opportunity for students to excel.

“We haven’t done anything like this at UT, ever,” Fowler said. “I told students in the class, ‘If you want to work for JPL, this is not just an assigned presentation. This is an audition.’”

With the challenge open to all UT students, Banazadeh said he believes sometimes the best ideas come from students outside traditional aerospace engineering circles.

“If you come from the other end of the spectrum, you don’t think about feasibility,” Banazadeh said. “You come up with a crazy idea and then give the engineers the problem and say, ‘Hey, solve this.’ I think that’s a better way to approaching these innovative-type missions.”