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The Adventures of a Space Nerd in America

The only place in the United States of America that I have ever really wanted to visit is the Kennedy Space Centre. It is no secret that I like space, and spacecraft and numerous other things that cause supposedly normal people's eyes to glaze over when you talk about them for more than a few passing moments. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that I had been chosen from the 50 members of the winning team of the UKSDC (UK Space Design Competition) to be one of the 12 to represent the UK at the International Space Settlment Design Competition. Since Jack Gregory and Joel Abraham were also chosen to come as part of the EU team that meant three Redcliffe Sixth Formers were heading to America, and I was one of them.  


Project Indagatus logo webOur journey began almost exactly a year ago when among the chaos of over 30 Redcliffe students who wanted to enter the first round of the UKSDC three Redcliffe teams emerged and Jack, Joel and I were in one of them. Despite arguments over how to pronounce the name of our craft, The Indagatus, we managed to produce a brilliant design for the video competition... and a penguin logo!  


Sure enough as a team of 9 we journeyed to Imperial College London with Mr Netto, one of our brilliant maths teachers, to compete at the UKSDC. At Imperial we worked hard and despite our multi-school team of 50 being split over two hotels we produced the best design presentation and we won. All nine of us from Redcliffe were immensely proud of what we had achieved.  


A few days later I saw the list of names of the twelve that had been chosen to go to America. I noticed that one of them was 'Matt' and assumed that it was the other Matt on the team. I then checked my email... I was going to America. I don't know how Joel and Jack felt when they received their emails, but I can assume that it was similar to how I felt; elation.  




Then the sound hit us. An odd consequence of our distance from the launch pad meant that the huge rumble of the launch didn't reach us until the rocket was well into its journey.




So, on the first Tuesday of the summer holidays the UK team and the UK contingent of the EU team gathered at Gatwick airport. Wearing brightly coloured floral necklaces, apparently because it made us recognisable, we crossed the Atlantic and worked our way through the American customs. Outside as we waited for the bus something became clear. Florida is hot. Even when it is raining it is still far too hot.  


I will not run through everything we did in America, suffice it to say, we had lots of fun, grew very close as a team and gained a reputation for playing a very strange game called Waaagh!!!! However there are some events that must be mentioned, one of which is the rocket launch. As we were planning what we were going to do before we left, one of the team discovered the launch timetable for Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Centre which happened to include the launch of an Atlas 5 rocket whilst we were there. So, watching from the beach, we witnessed multiple tons of fuel and steel lift itself into the sky. It was awe inspiring.  


Then the sound hit us. An odd consequence of our distance from the launch pad meant that the huge rumble of the launch didn't reach us until the rocket was well into its journey. Clearly hearing the sounds of an event that happened half a minute before is quite an odd experience.  


I must talk about the competition itself, the reason we actually travelled to America. I will attempt to explain the intricacies of the ISSDC as briefly as possible. Each team of 12 is placed into a multinational company of 50. This company of 50 has 4 subgroups each with a piece of design to focus on. These sub teams are; Structural, Operations, Automations and Human engineering. As this team of 50 we have to produce a response to a request for proposal (RFP), a hideous document outlining everything our space settlement has to do, and we had 2 days to complete it.  


The UK team was going to be collaborating with teams from Pakistan, America, a Chinese American Team and some of the Indian Team. We had had some contact with them over Facebook but actually meeting these amazing people was great. As this group of 50 we formed the imaginary company ‘Rockdonnel’. After sitting through a long talk, (albeit mostly interesting) we decided upon who the team's management was going to be. It turned out that it was mostly going to be people from the UK team, which was nice. We split up into department talks and it was there we received the dreaded R.F.P. We had to design a settlement on the surface of Mars to house 22500 people whilst bio-engineered bacteria converted nitrogen in the ground into an atmosphere. Not too difficult then!!  


The competition itself was gruelling, two days of work and attempts to keep communication between 50 people, from different countries and cultures, open and clear. Of course there were failures - contradictions arose in the design, vital data we needed was non-existent and there just wasn't enough time. I myself was juggling three different R.F.P. points and trying to ensure that vital pieces of explanation were not cut from the presentation in search of the 50 page limit. I expect everyone had a similar experience. As the second day drew to a close and the second night began we continued our work. Plans were drawn and redrawn. CAD was renderred, altered and then re-rendered. Before I knew it it was 4:30 in the morning and the team president sent me to bed to grab some sleep before I presented some of the slides in just a few hours time. I slept like, well, like someone who had been working virtually non-stop from 9:00am till 4:30am the next day.  




But I, and I think Jack and Joel, will take away so much more, the unique experiences, the skills acquired and developed, the friends from across the world we have made. These will stay with us forever.




Dawn came. I woke, transferred my notes from where they had been scrawled on my arm to my notepad and tried to be helpful as the last few pieces of our presentation were put into place. In an a couple of hours time, after two other companies had presented their designs, the presenters for Rockdonnel filed on stage and explained our design for the settlement on the surface of mars. Then came the horror of the judge's questions. Each are professionals, if anything we say makes no sense they will know instantly. Small cracks in our design were blasted wide open and then hurriedly patched as people tried to explain vital design points that hadn't got onto the presentation or simply tried to minimise the fallout from a mistake at 2 O'clock in the morning. Luckily for us, each team goes through this so when we returned to our seats we were not the only team who had slightly blank expressions. But when the final team presented, to our dismay, they appeared to have produced a design just as good as ours, maybe better.

Atlantis webSuch thoughts left my head as we broke for lunch and I finally got a chance to explore the space centre. Everything is amazing. The Space Shuttle exhibition is awe inspiring. The rocket garden is stunning. The giftshop had almost everything I could want. (I went back 4 times). Everything I could want from the space centre was there and I hadn't even looked round the whole thing. But the moment we had been waiting for had come. The judge's were soon going to give their verdict. We filed into the auditorium and, after some individual awards had been given, we waited with bated breath as mutiple circles criss crossed the screen deliberately circling all the team names or none of them. Then one appeared round Rockdonnel. We had won. We were the winners of the international competition. The first UK team in 7 years to be part of the winning company, and I was one of them.  


I will take several things away from my experience at NASA. Obviously it's great we won. But simply taking part was amazing, I was proud of the work I had done and that was enough. Winning was an added bonus. But I, and I think Jack and Joel, will take away so much more, the unique experiences, the skills acquired and developed, the friends from across the world we have made. These will stay with us forever.  


As for the future. The, now Year 13, Redcliffe team is going to enter again and, having seen the sign up sheet, I think there will be a lot of competition from multiple Year 12 teams. To them I issue this challenge, we beat the Year 13 team last year. This year see if you can do the same.


Matthew Forth


NASA team shot web