By Al Globus
I have dream—a vision really. Some decades hence, I see 15-20 senior managers and engineers from a number of companies and government space agencies sitting around a table in a conference room at some airport hotel. They are exhausted. They have just nailed down the final contracts and design for the first free-space settlement. It is based on advances pioneered by the space hotel and retirement home industry. The transportation and construction systems were largely developed by Earth’s large and growing space solar power energy segment. The facility they have agreed to is the first true settlement, a place in space to raise your kids. To the people around the table this is no mere job, it is destiny.
One turns to the guy next to him and asks, “What got you into free-space settlement?” He answers, “My friends and I took second place in the NASA Ames/NSS Student Space Settlement Design Contest back in 2014.” The questioner says, “No way! I won individual third place in 2016!” They start around the room. All have won something in one of the two NSS-sponsored student space settlement contests. Some won the first place, some a prize for literary merit, some an honorable mention, and so on until they got to the last woman in the room. Everyone knows she is the genius behind the design, the best of the best, but she is silent. People keep asking her, were you in a contest? You must have won the Grand Prize. What year? Finally, she mumbles something no one can hear. “What was that?” She mumbles louder, but is still incomprehensible. After endless prodding she finally says, “I was in the 2012 contest, but I didn’t put in my best effort and I didn’t win anything. I swore I would do better the next year, but by then I was too old to enter, so I had no choice but to build the real thing.” That’s how the first space settlement gets built.
Back to the present. If you’ve been to I SDC (NSS’ International Space Development Conference) in the last few years you must have noticed hundreds of young people. You may have seen them giving talks about their free-space settlement designs or perhaps you wandered into the poster room completely full of their designs. These are the kids that will make the vision come true.
For almost 20 years NASA Ames Research Center has sponsored an annual student space settlement design contest for 6-12th graders. In recent years NSS has co-sponsored the contest as well as the related but very different International Space Settlement Design Competition contest. Participants of both contests are invited to attend ISDC. In 2012 there were more than 1,200 contestants in the Ames contest, approximately 280 of whom came to ISDC, many with their friends, family, and teachers.
In 1994 public school teacher Tugrul Sezen and I founded the annual NASA Ames Student Space Settlement Contest. We knew school libraries had little material on space much less on space settlement, but we had seen something new in the world. The World Wide Web and the Mosaic graphic browser had just come out and we believed they would take off, giving us an easy, cheap, and effective way to deliver research materials to students all over the world. We were right.
The Ames contest is almost certainly one of the most cost effective education projects NASA has ever seen. The annual budget is just over one dollar per student, all of it supplied by the NASA Ames Contractor Council and San Jose State University. The contest has survived the last two decades by being effective and extremely low cost. To get an idea of how effective, google “space settlement contest” and go to the website. Most of the Grand Prize entries are online. They will blow your mind. As a reminder, these are middle and high school students, not aerospace engineers, delivering detailed designs and page after page of mathematics.
Contest alumni have attended Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and many other top-flight colleges and universities. They can be found working in the world’s top companies. One flew zero-g experiments on the European zero-g aircraft. Another published his entry in a peer-reviewed journal. Another group designed and flew a cubesat on a high altitude balloon to measure solar insolation levels. They all have bright futures; and one day, I believe, some of them will be sitting, exhausted, in an airport hotel conference room.
Al Globus is a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center, the chair of the NSS Space Settlement Advocacy Committee, and the editor-in-chief of the NSS Space Settlement Journal. His space settlement work may be found at space.alglobus.net. This article originally appeared in Ad Astra, Spring, 2013.