Outreach: The UK Space Design Competition –The Ring Reference ?
Every spring, around Eastertide, high school students gather in their hundreds, their mission eagerly accepted: to create a world in just two days.
The National Finals
Over one fateful weekend, they gather at Imperial College London for the national final of the UK Space Design Competition (http://uksdc.org) to design the space settlement of the future: its infrastructure, architecture, industrial operations and human habitat; all specified in a Request for Proposals from the fictional, yet powerful, “Foundation Society”.
Five companies of students, aged 14-18, work feverishly through the night, in an exercise of industrial simulation and design fiction that would exceed the capacities of many adults. All too early on a Sunday morning, the companies present their creations, braving the slings and arrows of the judges, their eyes fixed on the coveted prize: a journey to the distant world of NASA Kennedy, where the winning company will send their chosen 12 to compete in the International Space Settlement Design Competition.
In the 2087 competition, the Foundation Society issued an RFP for the first large settlement on the surface of Mercury. Named “Anconioh”, the settlement’s purpose was to expand production of the new metal alloy reardonium, which is composed of materials readily available on Mercury’s surface. Whereas previous constructions on Mercury had been confined to the lava tubes, the Anconioh settlement was to move continuously around the planet, staying within four degrees’ longitude of the terminator, the line which divides day and night on that world. As it moved, Anconioh would receive ore from the mining operations, ship it to a reardonium refinery on the Aynah settlement in Mercury’s orbit, receive reardonium parts made at Aynah, place the parts on the surface of Mercury to cure for three cycles of extreme heat and cold, and then ship the cured parts back to Aynah for delivery to customers.
This year, the five competing companies were:
- Dougledyne-Flechtel, with students from Henrietta Barnett School, Riddlesdown Collegiate, Sutton Grammar School, Westminster Academy and Westminster School;
- Spacebus Z, with students from Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Girls, Nonsuch High School for Girls and Queen Elizabeth’s School;
- Grumbo Aerospace, with students from Cardiff Sixth Form College, St. Michael’s Catholic Grammar School, Derby Grammar School and St. Olave’s;
- Vulture Aviation, with students from Bede’s Senior School, Craigmount High School, Dulwich College, Eltham College and West Kirby Grammar School;
- Rockdonnell, with students from The Brooksbank School, Canons High School, City of London Freemen’s School, Darwin Aldridge Community Academy, Waid Academy and Woodchurch High School.
Each company has four departments: Structural, Operations, Automation and Human Engineering. They must work together to describe the design, development and construction of the settlement. Over the course of 50 slides and 35 minutes, they must specify all the needful things including atmospheric composition, systems for adjustment to gravity, water purification and recycling, food production, industrial facilities, worker allocations and shift patterns, security, evacuation plans and disaster recovery, robotics and automated systems, community facilities and layout, floor plans of the living quarters, transient populations and tourism, recreation, airlocks, dust management, spacesuits and donning and doffing procedures… have I left anything out? Very likely… all justified with a detailed cost and schedule.
Throughout this Herculean ordeal, the students are supported by a team of dedicated volunteers (http://uksdc.org/about/uk-space-design-competition-board/), many of them experts in relevant STEM fields or education, from both industry and academia (http://spacesciengfoundation.org/team/), with an increasing number of loyal alumni from past Challenges swelling the ranks. The volunteers may choose to lead the companies as Executive Chairs; brief and support the departments as Technical Experts; or evaluate the proposals as Judges.
The Magic Happens
The proposals are judged by four standards: thorough coverage of the design brief; scientific and logical credibility of the design; balance amongst the four departments of structural, operations, automation and human engineering; and innovation. As a Judge of the competition since 2010, my disbelief suspended by the incomparable skill of the students’ creations, I must consciously remind myself that they are doing something that no-one knows how to do.
No-one knows how to build a settlement in space! How can we as scientists ask highschoolers to propose solutions to such hard problems? And yet, they do it, a feat scarcely distinguishable from magic. When fiction becomes reality, I expect that our alumni will be amongst the team that builds the first human settlement on Mars or the Moon. Many alumni have pursued STEM careers as a direct result of the Competition’s transformative power, which turns wallflowers into orators, and doubters into persuaders.
The magic of design fiction happens at the crossroads of science and art. The UK Competition’s Founder, Dr. Randall S. Perry, is an astrobiologist, novelist and filmmaker who brought the competition to Imperial College London in 2010. He was directly inspired by his friendship with NASA/Boeing Space Shuttle Engineer Anita Gale, who with her late husband Dick Edwards founded the US Competition in Houston. Anita will be hosting us again this July at NASA Kennedy, where last year the UK students, captained by Victoria Farrant, led their company to victory.
The UK Space Design Competition is brought to you by the Space Science and Engineering Foundation (http://spacesciengfoundation.org) thanks to the generous support of Dangoor Education (http://dangooreducation.com), the UK Space Agency. (https://space.blog.gov.uk) and the RAE (http://www.raeng.org.uk). We are thankful to Imperial College London for their support and to our patron Marcus du Sautoy FRS OBE.