Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Departmental Honors


Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering


Human and robotic missions beyond low earth orbit (LEO) are key components of NASA's currently emerging strategy for space exploration. These missions will inevitably include humancrewed lunar and planetary surface landings. Trips to near-earth asteroids are also in the incipient planning stages. A permanent presence on the surface of an extra terrestrial body like Mars or the Moon will require many landings by both human-crewed and robotic spacecraft.

Planetary and lunar surface landings are inherently dangerous undertakings, and successful landings are indeed rare events. Since the end of the Apollo era with the completion of the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, only five successful soft-landings have been achieved on the lunar surface, with the last landing being Luna 24 in 1976. During that same period there have been only six successful Martian surface landings with nearly as many failures. Although surface geology was a secondary consideration in selecting the Apollo landing sites, a primary consideration was crew safety and mission success. Thus all of the Apollo landing sites occurred in a narrow equatorial strip, near the lunar basaltic plains or "Maria." These landing sites were mostly free of significant surface hazards. Martian surface landing sites have been selected for similar benign surface terrain characteristics.

With a long term human extra-terrestrial surface presence, scientific objectives will become increasingly more important, and the landing site terrain will become increasingly more diverse. Correspondingly, as these surface landing sites become more interesting, they will also become more hazardous. Thus, the development of a research and testing platforms allowing "pin-point" autonomous landing systems to be evaluated, refined, and matured is essential. Only a free flying-platform can develop surface landing technologies to a sufficient technology readiness level (TRL) to be considered for ultra-expensive, extra-terrestrial missions. Additionally, as was demonstrated during the Apollo era, the development of a flying human-pilot training vehicle for extra-terrestrial surface landings will become a long-term exploration necessity.


This work made publicly available electronically on January 3, 2011.



Faculty Mentor

Stephen A. Whitmore