UK Space Design Competition: Southwark

I’m on a one girl mission to sample all the outreach activities going on in the South East, and on Saturday that meant I was in Southwark from 0730 at a swanky city sponsored academy. The school was huge- in the week it’s home to 1400 pupils- I think the reception area was bigger than my whole science department. The UK Space Design competition is such an exciting idea I couldn’t turn it down- a timed competition to design a space-settlement- where the winners of the UK final go to NASA!

This was a ‘regional heat’, and would run for 14 hours (08:00 – 22:00) on a wet and windy autumn weekend. The views from City Academy are insane- the whole of the London skyline out of your IT room. I was appointed a ‘CEO’ to three of the teams: Dougeldyne Astrosystems – Nonsuch High School for Girls, Flechtel Constructors – Archbishop Tenison’s CE High SchoolRockdonnell – Trinity School, Croydon.
Which meant I wasn’t with the team from the school we were in, which meant the first hour or so was spent finding wifi logins and computer access. The year is 2065. The schools are briefed on their specific challenge (where the settlement should be, how many residents would be permanent/ temporary, which companies they could subcontract to) then spend the day working on designs for their new homes in the sky. The groups break into sub-teams covering: marketing and sales, human, automation and structural engineering. They’re briefed on each topic and are let loose on their proposals. The requirements are insane (30 – 40 pages long) and the teams read them religiously whilst they start their designs. There were interesting differences between each group: the all-girl team came were super keen, with pre-determined roles, their own laptops and initial incredible confidence, suffering astronomic sugar crashes pre-lunch after a morning of biscuits, hairbo and fizzy drinks. They each came up with lunar-style names and logos, clever ways to feed their stellar families and mind blowing spaceship designs. By lunch they knew more than me about the stanford torus, ways to grow meat in-vitro and materials for shielding cosmic rays.
They didn’t stop working over lunch, eating baked potatoes whilst drawing robots and planning communication systems. It was exhausting moving between the three teams. One of the teams was cross-year-groups, which was tricky, because they didn’t know each other well enough to gauge skills or be rude if someone was going in the wrong direction. I loved their energy and enthusiasm- but wow were they competitive. I just realised in writing this up that there was very little inter-team discussion throughout the day. The groups made 35 slide long presentations outlining their settlements: Gantt charts, rotating gifs, fancy diagrams and references.
space stationAfter a dinner (of sandwiches) the teams presented their work to the judges. It’s an amazing competition because it keeps people coming back- the schools had all entered before and most of the students had made the final last year. They don’t look at their phones, they don’t text, there was no facebook- just pure concentration. The students don’t mind missing 14 hours of their weekends. I recently spoke to the admissions tutor at Imperial, a professor in atmospheric physics, and she said that there were heaps of mentions of UKSDC in applications this year: we even have a resident, triumphant, year 1 female physicist post a summer at NASA. The teachers really do very little- the competitors are out-of-this-world.

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