Space Settlement Design Competition: A Journey

By Divija Dewan

Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA.

On an ordinary school day in August 2018, I signed up for something extraordinary- something that changed my life. I had heard about the Space Settlement Design Competition- or SSDC as they called it- during my high school tenure, but never had I thought that I would get to be a part of it. Around one hundred kids from our batch had applied to be a part of a team of twelve members. The “NASA Team” which we were known as with time. A sophisticated process for our selection had been chalked down. I remember sitting in the auditorium with nervousness and excitement taking over me as our seniors took over the stage and introduced the idea of the competition to us. Lost in the stars and spaceships that would be afloat in my head all the time, SSDC (Space Settlement Design Competition) seemed like a way of bringing that fantasy to life.

After multiple complex rounds of brainstorming, Q&A sessions, and group discussions about the prospects of human habitation in space and the logic behind these systems that could make that possible, there it was, the final moment. Eight of the newly selected team members had already been called to the stage, where they stood happy and proud. And just as I thought I stood no chance, I heard it- “Divija Dewan.” Walking up to the stage felt like a victory dance, and honestly, I too was happy and proud. I could see the rest of the students leaving the auditorium, frowns on their faces. Though I felt bad for others, I knew that the seconds to follow would be different for me. There we were twelve familiar faces with unfamiliar personalities, standing, somehow in unison, celebrating that day and simultaneously awaiting the future.

The next few days were just introductions among the team members and sharing whatever knowledge and resources we had. We had our first proposal submission in about a month and a half, and as “newbies,” we knew we had to be well prepared. With guidance from our physics teachers and senior students who had participated in the competition before us, we understood the technicalities behind beyond-earth-habitation. A room was allocated to us- “NASA Room”- where we would sit and work, mostly research, about anything and everything related to space settlements.

Segregating ourselves into respective departments for work was a challenging task, but we were successful, nonetheless. Soon, ‘Structural Design,’ ‘Operations and Infrastructure,’ ‘Human Factors and Safety,’ ‘Automation Design and Services,’ ‘Cost and Scheduling’ and ‘Business Development,’ our departments, were allocated to us, with each of us belonging to at least one of them. Structures, Ops, HF, Auto, CS and BD started defining our identities. We had received our first Request for Proposal (aka RFP), not long after that our team was formed, and by this point, a major portion of brainstorming and documentation was already in motion. RFP is a document used in the industry for conveying the needs of the client to the producer or contractor. Our RFP was shown to be issued by a hypothetical body known as ‘The Foundation Society’: leading space organization, a pioneer in extra-terrestrial industrial ventures and space tourism. A typical RFP entails a detailed description of the agenda and operational capability of the settlement along with what is required of us. Our job as contractors was to use our skills to produce a technically sound proposal that fulfilled those requirements in a creative and cost-effective manner.

We worked on our proposal, ‘ATLAS,’ a space settlement in lower earth orbit, for about a month. Looking back, it did have errors, but that only shows how far we came by the end of the NASA journey. Eleven long months, three full-length proposals, and two live events, later, we reached our final destination: we made it to ISSDC: the International Space Settlement Design Competition, held at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, USA. The pure joy we felt when we received our selection mail, the words ‘ISSDC FINALISTS,’ the happiness in being able to make it, was unmatched. On July 23, 2019, we departed for the States with dreams in our eyes and hope in our hearts. We were there to learn. We were there to grow. We were there to win.

The next few days followed with both excitement and anxiety. We met our fellow teammates from all over the world. There were schools participating from the USA, China, England as well as from other European countries. The participants were divided into five ‘companies,’ each company comprising sixty students. The goal was to design the best possible space settlement based on the RFP-which would be given to us in real time in a total time span of about 48 hours. Followed by a business presentation, or ‘pitch,’ where we pitch our product-the space settlement- to the judges, i.e., The Foundation Society. The company that designs the best proposal and executes the most appealing pitch, of course, wins.

Our first informal interaction with our teammates did not go as planned. We got back to our rooms and called for a team meeting to review what had happened.

“So uhm, the Brits seem smart, I think Freddie will run for President.”

“It’s okay Naman, you stand a chance too. We just need to plan certain things.”

“Yeah okay, you’re right. We have collaborated with the Chinese before in the Asian round so that should not be a problem. I am worried about some of the students for Texas, though. I do not think they have much experience.”

“Uh honestly I don’t think there’s much we can do about that at this point. Look, we will be fine. We just have to make the most of what we have. We’ve done this before; we’ll do it again.”

Yes, that is not what really happened.

Putting it nicely, tables were flipped, voices were raised; everyone, well… “freaked out.” The majority of the participants were there for a vacation, probably because they did not have to work for 11 months to get there. Analyzing everything, we knew we had limited people to work with. But we moved past that because limited people also meant more power for us in the decision-making process. And so, we took deep breaths, and geared up for the infinity war. The next 48 hours were eventful. From decoding the RFP for hints to devising a plan for 3D modelling, everything was happening in the same room, at the same time. Naman had secured the position of Co-president, which was extremely reassuring for us and helped us keep the momentum up. With whiteboards, gadgets, stationery, and people running around here and there to coordinate, the hall seemed like a place where creativity would flow, and it did. Hours of deliberation resulted in a spectacular structure for our space settlement, which was set to be established on Martian soil. And then it began, the hustle. While Ops figured out water requirements and aeroponic dynamics, HF figured out spacesuit designs and airlock mechanisms. Auto incorporated AI safety mechanisms in the settlement while BD moderated what is best from a business point of view. Two long days and nights later, we were finally done with our last SSDC proposal. A little sad, and sleep deprived, we rushed back to our rooms to freshen up and get dressed in formals. This was the last stretch of our SSDC journey, we knew that, but it had not struck us yet. It was presentation time. And the next thing I knew, we were standing in the main hall, men (and women) in black, talking as if we were real industry professionals, ready to take on the world.

Divija at the Kennedy Space Center (left)

After what seemed like a moderately successful pitch, we were happy with our performance. We did not expect to win, but we were not thinking about that then. The results were still hours away, and up next on our itinerary was the Kennedy Space Centre Tour. It was spectacular. As the tour ended, we started walking to the auditorium for the results and the closing ceremony, and in that moment, something felt different. We were in the endgame. And this time, we all knew it. The results were announced, and it was not our company’s name up there. And then it struck us, eleven months of demanding work, an insanely erratic journey, was it all for nothing? Had we gained nothing? We were in the endgame, but let us just say, we had a satiating long post-credit scene. The next few days were just, simply put, fun. We had accepted our fate and moved on, and promised to make the most of the remainder of our trip. A trip to Universal Studios followed by a shopping day was nothing but bliss. The rollercoaster at Universal Studios will always remind me of our journey as whole, full of highs and lows, difficulties, times when you want to vomit your guts out and times when you are at the top of the world. From dancing one moment to talking about personal issues and sleeping on each other’s shoulders immediately after, we had been through so much together. It was all ending, but that, as we all knew, was inevitable.

With tears in our eyes and a constant wish to just, go back and relive the entire journey again, I realized that overweight suitcases and a runner-up trophy were not all we got back from The States. We learned. We grew. And we did win, not just a lifetime’s worth of hilarious stories and sweet memories, but also the concept of us as a team. It has been more than two years since then. A lot has changed, but we still remain as tight as ever. The show’s been going on, and we got to relive the NASA experience last year again as mentors to our juniors, so that was one long post-credit scene. Honestly, the fact that I sit here writing about SSDC right now probably says something about how much it has to offer and how it impacted me as a person. I know I would be a different person without it. Less informed, or less confident, or maybe, just maybe, …ordinary.

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