Balloon animals and bouncy castles on the moon. Condition of inflatable habitat

Each year, NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovate, and Game-Change (BIG) Idea Challenge invites innovative students to build and demonstrate concepts that could benefit future human missions to the Moon and beyond. This year’s theme is “Inflatable Systems for Lunar Operations,” which can significantly reduce the mass and volume of stored payloads sent to the Moon. This is critical to the Artemis program because it returns astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo era more than fifty years ago. It will also reduce the costs of sending payloads to the Moon, Mars and other destinations in deep space.

The BIG Idea Challenge is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) as part of a collaborative effort between the Game Change Development (GCD) program and the agency’s Office of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Engagement. The competition is jointly administered by the National Institute of Space (NIA) and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) and is funded by a GCD and National Space Grant and Fellowship Project. As part of the challenge, teams of five to 25 students and faculty advisors will submit proposals, and five to eight finalists will be selected for further development.

Despite decades of growth and development, the greatest challenges to sending manned missions into space remain limited in size and mass. Like it or not, launches are still subject to the rocket equation, which creates a vicious cycle in which larger payloads require more propellant to break free from Earth’s gravity. This in turn means larger rockets with heavier fuel tanks, etc. As such, large structures cannot be placed on the surface of the Moon or Mars without complex deployment mechanisms and assembly on site.

NASA has explored multiple solutions to this problem, which include using local resources to create building materials and provide for astronauts’ needs. In-Site Resource Utilization (ISRU). This has the advantage of reducing the amount of supplies astronauts will need to bring with them while reducing reliance on resupply missions. Another solution is to send large inflatable systems, which are low in mass and can be packed tightly into payload covers. Once they reach their destination and are inflated, they expand to many times their stored size.

Combined with advanced fabrics and internal pressure reinforcement, inflatable systems can provide robust habitats and environmental protection against harsh extraterrestrial conditions. That’s the purpose of the 2024 Big Idea Challenge, in which university-level teams are tasked with designing habitats that include inflatable components. These range from towers, bridges and antennas to soft robots, actuators, connectors, deployment mechanisms, airlocks and temporary shelters. Nicky Werkheiser, technology maturation manager for NASA’s STMD, said in a recent NASA press release:

“This challenge is particularly exciting because it applies outside-the-box thinking to the design and engineering processes that will be required to integrate inflatable components into space missions. Harnessing the impressive creativity demonstrated by this collective could provide truly new solutions for future space exploration.”

Finalists will be selected by a panel of NASA and industry experts who will evaluate the proposal and video package for mission scenarios involving inflatable systems. The five to eight selected classes will receive a stipend of between $50,000 and $150,000, including expenses for hardware, materials, testing equipment, software, etc. The teams will spend the next nine months developing, refining, testing their proposals and preparing a business plan. A technical writing of 15 to 20 pages detailing their findings. This will be followed by the annual BIG Idea Forum next fall, where they will be invited to submit their concepts for technical design review.

Promotional poster for the 2023 Lunar Forge Challenge. Credit: NASA

This will include proof-of-concept demonstrations in analog test environments that simulate lunar conditions. Tomas Gonzalez Torres, space grants project manager for NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, said:

“When it comes to mission-critical technology for upcoming space exploration efforts, academia is an important partner. University-level teams are pushing the boundaries in terms of creativity and also in demonstrating technological readiness for innovative ideas. These ideas can be incorporated into technology development at the micro and macro level.”

This year’s competition complements the 2023 Lunar Forge Challenge, in which undergraduate and graduate students were awarded up to $180,000 to design, develop and demonstrate technologies that will enable the production of lunar infrastructure through ISRU-derived minerals. These and other technologies will be critical to the Artemis missions and the long-term goals that NASA, fellow agencies, and commercial partners have to create permanent infrastructure on the Moon. In addition to enhancing lunar exploration, research, and perhaps settlement, these efforts will enable future missions to Mars and beyond.

To learn more about the 2024 Big Idea Challenge and how to enter, visit the BIG Idea website at

Further reading: NASA

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