Competition Basics

2019 big idea htc logo

Design Constraints and Requirements


This solicitation seeks innovations in the design, installation, and sustainable operation of a Mars greenhouse. The Mars greenhouse should complement the unique design of the Mars Ice Home and adapt some of the innovative features for a “greenhouse” to help support a crew of 4 on a 600-day surface mission. This greenhouse design should respond to and provide a vision for the plausible use of plants for space missions and incorporate as much as possible from In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). The designs should indicate the potential optimization and efficiencies to use plants for food production and also for supporting Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS). Designers must consider ease of fabrication, ease of deployment, technology readiness, and operations in Martian environments in their designs. Designs should propose a habitat size, form, and systems design concept which provides the surface area and volume needs for efficient plant production balanced with the volume and mass constraints of an inflatable structure-based construction. or more. Successful proposals will include appropriate levels of engineering design and power system analysis to validate the concept.


In 2019, this GCD-sponsored engineering design competition seeks innovative ideas from the academic community for the design and operation of a Mars Greenhouse. Supplying reliable and effective food production systems on Mars will reduce the logistics needed to transport food from Earth and also promote crew health on long surface missions.

Potential human missions to the Martian surface in the 2030s will require systems for effective food production. Access to fresh food will promote crew health and greatly reduce the logistics requirements to support crews on the long surface stays required for a Mars mission.

In 2016/2017 the Mars Ice Home feasibility study developed a cost-effective inflatable habitat concept that provides the large flexible workspace needed for an early Martian outpost. A key innovation of the Mars Ice Home design is the utilization of ISRU-derived water ice as shielding from Galactic Cosmic Rays. This type of high energy radiation poses a serious health risk to crews living and working on the surface of Mars. The Mars Ice Home design can be adapted for use as a greenhouse to support an early Mars mission.

NASA has funded many crop cultivation/food production studies to support astronauts in space and now we need to develop an effective greenhouse design that can support an early Martian outpost. This is a multi-disciplinary systems engineering effort that will incorporate information from the many studies done earlier and develop an overall systems approach for a credible greenhouse on Mars.

Artist rendering of internal Mars GreenhouseArtist's rendering of interal Mars Greenhouse
Artist rendering of internal Mars Greenhouse


The primary purpose of this greenhouse will be food production. Designs should size the habitat based on (and provide information on) their crop and growth systems choices including:

      Crop selection for nutritional requirements

        o Please visit the Resources section below for references useful in developing your BIG Idea Challenge concept.
      Nutrition requirements for crew of 4 and the ability of the on-site greenhouse to supplement food supplied from Earth (food production capability)
      Surface area, volume, and edible biomass density of planted area of the selected crops and growth systems
      Growth time, harvest cycles and efficiencies of the selected crops and growth systems (based on species, genetic or growth system enhancements or adaptations)
      Systems requirements including water, nutrients, lighting, etc. (see systems design below)
      Identify automated tasks and manual tasks in an operational context

Ice Home Wall Construction

Ice Home Wall Construction

Special considerations will be given to the inclusion of secondary systems which may include:

      Water, air, and waste regeneration/re-use (Biological Life Support Systems - BLSS)

        o Crop/plant selection for waste remediation
        o Oxygen/CO2 production rates, and biomass production rates given the chosen system
        o Surface area and volume necessary for efficient re-use cycles for the crew of 4
        o Microbiome or other biological additions (bacteria, fungi, etc.) role in system enhancement
        o Description of Closed-Loop or Ecosystems based processes
        o The NASA Technology Roadmap provides insight into the technology needs in this area: TA 6: Human Health, Life Support, and Habitation Systems
      Biomass energy production
      Human occupancy for servicing and recreation

        o Designs should integrate radiation protection requirements for both crew and plants
        o Designs should react to human occupancy for both gardening and leisure

Plant Systems Design and Systems Integration

The Mars greenhouse should respond to the unique design of the Mars Ice Home’s exterior skin, and provide designs which will integrate the following systems in a way that complements the Ice Home’s design optimizations:

      Growth Media

        o designs should provide information on the choice to use in-situ Martian regolith materials and processing mechanisms, or the use of hydroponic or aeroponic growth mediums, sources, and maintenance
      Structural Support Systems

        o designs should provide structure to hold vegetation (this may or may not be the same as the growth media)
        o special consideration will be given to the integration of vegetation support systems with the design of the inflatable
      Water Delivery Systems

        o special consideration will be given to the integration of water systems with the habitat’s external water bladder used as radiation shielding
      Nutrient Delivery Systems

        o designs should provide information on the source, re-use, and distribution of essential plant nutrients including requirements for resupply versus materials collected in-situ
      Microbiome Description

        o if designs incorporate or respond to the needs of additional biologic systems (bacteria, fungi, etc.) these systems should be described
      Temperature, Humidity, “Wind,” and Environmental Controls

        o designs should provide information on the necessary systems for maintaining plant specific environmental requirements for each stage of plant growth and each species.
      Lighting Systems

        o designs should consider the appropriate use of natural light as well as artificial lighting supplements
        o special consideration will be given to the optimization of the use of natural light provided by the design of the habitat’s translucent exterior
        o designs should consider the solar flux changes due to daily sun angle, season, and landing site latitude as well as impacts of extended dust storms on array power output
      Energy Requirements
      Maintenance and Growth Cycle Control

        o indicate how plants are to be planted, tended, harvested, pollinated, re-seeded, or re-grown etc.
        o indicate to what extent these systems will be automated versus human operated
        o indicate the control or use of pests, bacteria or fungi

Systems Engineering Assumptions
Proposing teams should clearly identify their assumptions and provide rationale to support them. Below are some key assumptions. Teams can adjust these assumptions if a good rationale to do so is provided.

      Inflatable Structure

        o Proposers are strongly encouraged to consider incorporating plant production systems that are packaged inside an inflatable structure with a landed mass under 18,000 kg. This mass limitation was recommended by Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) experts as the maximum amount that currently planned technologies could deliver to the Martian surface. The inflatable structure would likely be a small portion of this overall mass.
        o A pressure door (2m x 2m) will separate the greenhouse from the habitation area. The mass of the pressure door to the Ice Home can be allocated to the Ice Home system however the mass of an attachment ring/interface will need to be included with the greenhouse.
        o The maximum packaged/stowed dimensions are limited to 7M x 7M x 4M based primarily on aero shell limitations. An external airlock to support the greenhouse can be considered to support operations but must be included in the greenhouse mass and volume.

        o The packaged inflatable greenhouse will be robotically transported from the landing zone to the habitation zone and connected to the Ice Home habitat via the attachment interface. The airlock connection will have interfaces for water, power, command and data, and filtered air. Once connected to the Ice Home habitat, the greenhouse will be inflated via remote commands.
      Resource Margins

        o As with any space flight project, the team should maintain reasonable resource margins (Mass, Volume, Power, etc.) for future growth. A 30% resource margin is a typical number during the early design phase.
      Pressure Vessel

        o The inflatable greenhouse will have a pressurized work area that should take one of the three basic shapes for a pressure vessel (sphere, cylinder, and torus). This will greatly simplify loads analysis for the materials. Other shapes can be considered, however an appropriate analysis must be included.
        o This pressurized space will have an airtight bladder with a restraint layer of fiberglass webbing that supports the very large pressure loads (Assume 1 Earth Atmosphere inside the growing area although studies show that plants do well at lower pressures with correspondingly higher oxygen concentrations.).
        o The pressurized working space will be surrounded by an inner CO2 gas insulation layer, then a layer of water cells that can be frozen if desired, and finally an outer CO2 gas insulation layer. The outer layers will be pressurized to a much lower pressure than the work area so that they will not require a restraint layer. Testing done during the Mars Ice Home Risk Reduction Study demonstrated that solid clear ice can be obtained at pressures as low as 1 PSI. All the materials will be translucent so that a small amount of natural lighting can penetrate to the pressurized work area.
      Water Production Rates

        o Credible ISRU water production rates must be considered during deployment and operation. Consider operations that produce some food early and ramp up as more water becomes available for production and radiation shielding. A water production rate of 0.1 cubic meter per day (~100 kg) is a good starting point for your assumptions.
        o Water can be accumulated and stored in the Ice Home and periodically sent to the greenhouse in large batches (~1000 kg/batch) via the water connection at the Ice Home/greenhouse interface.
      Deployment Aspects - Pre-deployed with Simple Robotics

        o The deployment aspects should consider integration into an early Martian outpost, outfitting, and also crewed and/or robotic operations. The greenhouse design should simplify the initial deployment so that it can be done with simple robotics. The design should minimize set-up time after crew members arrive so that food production can begin shortly after arrival. Launch opportunities to Mars occur every 25-26 months. This should be considered for pre-deployment.
        o Teams should consider that any specialized robotics required to deploy and/or operate their design will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, qualify, and deliver to the Mars outpost. Minimizing the need for custom robotics is an important design consideration for developing a cost-effective early outpost.
      Alignment with latest NASA Mars Architecture documents and habitation concepts

        o Teams should try to align with the latest NASA Mars Architecture documents and must clearly state the assumptions made that support their design.
        o Teams should utilize information from the the Mars Ice Home ConOps as a starting point for their greenhouse design, as it provides information on the expected environments at Mars (see Environmental Considerations section).

Resource Flow Diagram

Resource Flow Diagram


The BIG Idea Challenge is open to teams of undergraduate and graduate students studying in fields applicable to human space exploration (i.e., aerospace, electrical, and mechanical engineering; and life, physical, and computer sciences). Teams may include senior capstone students, clubs, multi-university teams, or multi-disciplinary teams.


      Team sizes vary widely, but must contain, at a minimum, one US citizen faculty or industry advisor with a university affiliation at a U.S.-based institution, and 3 US Citizen students from a U.S.-based university who work on the project and present at the BIG Idea Forum, each of whom must be U.S. citizens.
      A faculty advisor is required to attend the Forum with each team, and is a condition for acceptance into the competition.

        o Teams who do not have a faculty advisor present at the BIG Idea Forum will be disqualified from competing and stipends will be subject to return to NIA.


      Team size is limited to a maximum of 8 student team members working on the project throughout the year.

        o For the final 5 teams invited to present at the 2019 BIG Idea Forum, a maximum of 6 student team members can attend the Forum.
      Teams will be comprised of a minimum number of 3 US citizen students.


      Up to 2 participating team members may be foreign nationals if they are attending the U.S.-based university submitting a proposal.
      Please note that due to prohibitive restrictions and ever-changing NASA security regulations, foreign nationals will not be able to attend the BIG Idea Forum on-site at NASA. There will be no exceptions to this policy.
      Additionally, because NASA has a strict policy that all interns must be U.S. Citizens, foreign nationals are ineligible to receive the top prize (a NASA internship offer).


Because this is a NASA-sponsored competition, eligibility is limited to students from universities in the United States. Foreign universities are not eligible to participate in the 2018 BIG Idea Challenge.



The judges’ panel is comprised of NASA and industry experts who will evaluate and score the competition between participating teams. Design projects will be evaluated and judged based on adherence to the guidelines and constraints and the published evaluation criteria.


Guidelines for writing and submitting the Proposal and Video can be found on the Requirements and Forms page. The evaluation criteria is listed below:

      Feasibility of proposed design, including low system mass, optimization for maximum food production, design simplicity, Mars environmental resiliency, and Earth ground testability (Max 40 pts)
      Innovation of proposed ConOps for launch, deployment, and sustained food production in the Martian environment (Max 30 pts)
      Cost effective operation in a Martian outpost and dual use capabilities (Max 20 pts)
      Ability to fabricate an affordable proof-of-concept experimental prototype that addresses the key design and operational challenges (Max 10 pts)


Guidelines for creating and submitting the final Technical Paper and Oral Presentation can be found on the Requirements and Forms page. The evaluation criteria is listed below:

      Feasibility and completeness of proposed design, including low system mass, optimization for maximum food production, design simplicity, Mars environmental resiliency, and Earth ground testability (Max 30 pts)
      Innovation of proposed ConOps for launch, deployment, and sustained operation in the Martian environment (Max 30 pts)
      Cost effective operation in a Martian outpost and dual use capabilities (Max 10 pts)
      Impact of knowledge gained from proof-of-concept experimental prototype (Max 10 pts)
      Quality of 3D CAD models, prototype, and graphics (Max 20 pts)


      Innovative Design
      Creative operational approaches
      Use of technologies that could be ready for use on Mars in the early 2030s
      Effective packaging for launch and Mars landing
      Effective and reliable deployment methods
      Credible fabrication and material selection
      Concept of Operations (ConOps)

        o The design package must include a Mars Greenhouse Concept of Operations (ConOps) that clearly describes the complete lifecycle, including all design assumptions and address fabrication, transport, deployment, and operations. The format of the Mars Ice Home Concept of Operations can be used for an abbreviated Greenhouse ConOps.
Participation Awards

The BIG Idea Challenge offers a $6,000 participation stipend to each of the final 5 teams to present their concepts at LaRC in April 2019 at the Big Idea Forum.


NASA is setting aside up to 5 summer internships for students on teams that advance to the BIG Idea Forum. Selections will be based on the cumulative merit of each student’s individual internship application and availability for summer internships.



Mars Ice Home talk by Kevin Kempton

Graham, Thomas & Wheeler, Ray, "Ice Home Mars Habitat Concept of Operations (ConOps)," 2017

NASA Technology Roadmaps, "TA 6: Human Health, Life Support, and Habitation Systems"

Thomas Graham, Raymond Wheeler, "Mechanical Stimulation Modifies Canopy Architecture and Improves Volume Utilization Efficiency in Bell Pepper: Implications for Bioregenerative Life-support and Vertical Farming," 2017

Bret Drake, "Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0," 2009

Raymond Wheeler, "Potato and Human Exploration of Space: Some Observations from NASA-Sponsored Controlled Environment Studies," 2006

Wheeler, Ray & Mackowiak, Cheryl & Stutte, Gary & Yorio, "Crop productivities and radiation use efficiencies for bioregenerative life support," 2008

Raymond Wheeler, "Agriculture for Space: People and Places Paving the Way" 2017

Raymond Wheeler, "Advances in Potato Chemistry and Technology, Chapter 17: Potatoes for Human Life Support in Space" 2009

JM Clawson and A Hoen, "Global Estimates of the Photosynthetically Active Radiation at the Mars Surface" 2005

Clawson, Hoehn and Maute, "Materials for Transparent Inflatable Greenhouses" 2003

Rygalov, Fowler, Wheeler, Bucklin, "Water Cycle and its Management for Plant Habitats at Reduced Pressures" 2004

Fowler, Yeralan, Rygalov, Wheeler, Dixon, "Monitoring and Control for Artificial Climate Design" 2002

Bucklin, Drysdale, Fowler, Wheeler "Low Pressure Greenhouse Concepts for Mars: Atmospheric Composition" 2002

Clawson & Hoen, Wheeler "Inflatable Transparent Structures for Mars Greenhouse Applications" 2005

Ries, Bockstahler, Higgins, Atkinson, Lewandowski, Gjestvang, Frey, Clawson, Klaus "RedThumb: A Mars Greenhouse design for the 2002 MarsPort Engineering Design Student Competition" 2003

Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle Payload User’s Guide

Advanced Planetary Protection Technologies for the Proposed Future Mission Set

Exposure Guidelines (SMACs & SWEGs)

Human Integration Design Handbook

Preparing for the High Frontier: The Role and Training of NASA Astronauts in the Post-Space Shuttle Era

NASA Space Flight Human-System Standard Volume 2: Human Factors, Habitability, And Environmental Health

The Fission System Gateway to Abundant Power for Exploration

Vegetable Production System (Veggie)

NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign


Some of these resources may be helpful to students participating in the 2019 Challenge.

Tom Kerslake, "Solar Electric Power System Analyses for Mars Surface Missions," 1999

Robert Cataldo, "Power Requirements for NASA Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0," 2009

Mars landing site concept animation, "Mars Exploration Zones," 2015

Michelle Rucker, “Human Mars Mission Power Architectures,” Space Power Workshop, Manhattan Beach, CA, April 2017

Richard Pappa and Tom Kerslake, “Mars Surface Solar Arrays,” Future In-Space Operations (FISO) telecon seminar with recorded audio, June 7, 2017



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Wall Construction Diagram

Wall Construction Diagram

Resource Flow Diagram

Resource Flow Diagram

Marsboreal Greenhouse

Marsboreal Greenhouse Interior

Proposal Video Examples

2017 Finalist Video Submissions

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2018 Finalist Video Submissions

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