NASA’s new Exploration Design Challenge, announced March 11 during an event at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, will engage U.S. students in kindergarten through high school in helping to solve the known problem of increased radiation exposure encountered on flights into deep space.

Through teacher-led classroom activities and, for the older entrants, access to the resources to design and perhaps build and then fly into space a prototype radiation shield, students from across the nation will be able to contribute to the first flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, targeted for launch in September 2014.

The EFT-1 mission will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket, which will boost an unmanned Orion capsule on a two-orbit flight around the Earth. Once in space, the craft will rise to more than 5,800 kilometers above the planet — 15 times higher than the international space station — prior to turning around to come home to perform a high-energy test of its heat shield.

The EFT-1 Orion will be equipped with a NASA-designed radiation sensor to measure the harsh space environment that the capsule will fly through. But it may be the student design for a radiation shield from the Exploration Design Challenge (EDC) that offers the breakthrough technology for astronauts to follow on future missions.

“My guess is that we will see something we never thought about,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in an interview, referring to the outcome of the EDC. “It may be totally different and it may even be affordable, which is most important.”

The design challenge is divided into three levels. For children in the first two groups, kindergarten through fourth grade and fifth through eighth grades, their teachers will lead them through studying the effects of radiation on human space travelers and analyzing materials that can simulate space radiation shielding for Orion. After participating in these activities, the students will recommend materials that best block harmful radiation.

At the high school level, students will design the shielding to protect a sensor inside the Orion spacecraft from space radiation.

“There will be five teams chosen to test their designs in a virtual radiation simulator,” Leland Melvin, NASA’s associate administrator for education, said. “All five teams that are chosen will go down to Kennedy Space Center for the launch of EFT-1 and there will be a final down-select of the winning design that will possibly be flown on EFT-1.”

“All of you who participate will be part of something that has never been done before, the first test flight of Orion,” said Marilyn HewsonLockheed Martin Corp. president and chief executive , addressing the students who attended the March 11 event and who were watching live on NASA’s television channel.

Lockheed Martin is NASA’s prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft and is building the capsule that will fly on EFT-1.