Space System Design Competition: Engineers Solving Real World Problems

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

Do you enjoy solving puzzles? Can you think of interesting designs for a solution? Are you the type of person who needs to find the answer to a problem? If so, the University of Minnesota Space System Design Competition (UMN SSDC) could be a good fit for you!

The UMN SSDC team competes in the annual American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) design competition. Each year, AIAA publishes a request for proposal, asking teams across the country to propose a solution to a unique engineering problem related to NASAs current objectives in space. The team then spends the academic year doing research and developing unique design solutions in areas such as astronaut survival, structural design of Lunar bases, and Martian sample collection. A comprehensive paper is written at the end of the year detailing the proposed solution to the problem. Several of the competitions allow students to perform theoretical work and gain real-world insight into the design process. Whether students are designing an aircraft, engine, or space vehicle, they will go through all of the primary design steps involved in determining a solution to a Request for Proposal (RFP). This includes determining a hypothetical solution, testing the hypothesis, evaluating its effectiveness, possibly doing cost analysis, and finally preparing a report that will be submitted in response to the RFP. These responses are reviewed by experts in the field who will provide constructive responses to the students. Cash prizes are awarded to the winners by the AIAA Foundation.


This undergraduate team consists of (but is not limited to) approximately 12 members and is a subgroup of UMN AIAA Student Chapter. They work in part with AEM Professor Yohannes Ketema who is the faculty advisor for the AIAA Student Chapter. The team gathers once a week to share information, update goals, and develop new ideas. As the deadline for the paper approaches, subteam leads may often host more meetings as necessary in order to meet that deadline. The final report is no longer than 100 pages, double-spaced in 10-point Times New Roman font including charts, figures, photos, graphs, and references.

Team members also have the chance to socialize and make connections at UMN AIAA’s many events. Some previous events include Trivia Night, Root Bear Float Social, and working a booth at the Minnesota State Fair.


Due to the many components of each project, the SSDC team divides into subteams depending on the nature of the challenge proposed that year. Some notable and frequently occurring subteams are featured and described below:

Structures develops, in short, the structure of the object. When a large-scale object with many components needs to be designed, such as a spacecraft or base, this team is responsible for the structure. This involves designing components such as chassis, rover drive trains, or compartments for bases.

Life Support focus on things like water reclamation systems, oxygenators, food supply, and other important systems for sustaining life in the harsh environment outside of Earth. If there’s an astronaut on the mission, that means there’s an entire team whose sole job is to keep them alive.

Mission Delivery is responsible for decisions such as rocket choice, payload mass constraints, and orbital determinations. While much of the team focuses on what to do once they reach their destination in space, someone has to make sure they get there properly.

Keeping the lights on is only a small part of what Power Systems does. Developing a power budget, harvesting energy from reliable sources, and maximizing the efficiency of each system to waste as little energy as possible are all important jobs for this division.

Propulsion focuses on moving across the vastness of space. Often working closely with Mission Delivery, if rocket engines are your thing, this team will give you the chance to use cutting edge technology and research in that field.

While there are other teams that appear during certain challenges and not every sub team appears each year, this list provides a good overview of what to expect from year to year in SSDC. It is also important to note that, while the team divides into these groups, they still work together regularly and operate as a single team. Members will not be part of an isolated subteam.


Last year’s competition involved designing a Mars Rover responsible for collecting ice core samples from the Martian surface and returning them to Earth. The year prior, it was the development of a Lunar base which served as a forward base for future NASA operations on the Moon and a possible staging area for an expedition to Mars. These competitions offer a great opportunity for students to participate in a simulated real-world problem, gaining experience and receiving useful and constructive feedback from technical experts who sit on AIAA Technical Committees.

If you are interested in joining the Space System Design Competition and solving real world problems as an engineer, contact