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Designs for Space Colonies : Calculating Youths' Ideas on Traveling Are Way Out

May 03, 1987|LAURA FISHER

Hsin-Fa (Seth) Chang was furiously scribbling calculus equations in a stuffy room in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory last weekend. Oblivious to the din around him, the 17-year-old senior from Temple City High School paused and asked: "What is the formula for the volume of a doughnut?"

The doughnut in question was not the sugar-coated kind. Rather, it was an orbiting space station designed to hold several thousand colonists from Earth in the year 2007.

Chang was competing with 107 other California teen-agers in the third Space Settlement Design Competition, also known as Spaceset 87, sponsored by the Explorer Scout post at JPL.

Most of the participants, aged 12 to 19, are aspiring engineers and scientists recruited from the ranks of Explorer Scouts, Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadets, the Upward Bound college preparatory program and science classes.

Potential Leaders

"These are kids who are both sharp and demonstrate an interest in being leaders in the space design industry," said Anita Gale, a project engineer for Rockwell International who helped found Spaceset.

The students' mission was to split into four mock aerospace companies that would put together bids for a contract to design and construct the first human settlement in space.

The idea was to give teen-agers interested in space careers a taste of what it is like to work in the industry. More important, they got the chance to work hard and have fun doing it, said Rockwell project manager Dick Edwards, one of a dozen aerospace executives who volunteered to spend the weekend helping the students.

"You don't survive in industry if you don't learn to have fun while you're working 16- and 17-hour days," Edwards said.

The students, who paid $40 each to enter Spaceset, gathered in Pasadena on Friday night for an orientation session that included a talk by Tom Heppenheimer, author of "Colonies in Space."

Next morning, they heard a

lecture on how businesses function and were assigned to work for one of the four companies.

The mock firms--Grumbo, Hugmar Ltd., Vulture and SVK--were modeled after existing aerospace giants. Each student got a handout with pertinent information about the mock companies--their history, strengths and weaknesses.

They were told, for example, that Hugmar had been plagued in recent years by increased expenses and lower profits, and was counting on winning the bid to strengthen its financial picture, and that SVK excelled in producing mainframe computers for the aerospace industry.

Colony for Thousands

The fledgling scientists then set out to design a colony that would accommodate 5,000 people and could be expanded to eventually house 25,000.

The proposals had to include provisions for not only such basic human needs as food, water and air, but also the economic, psychological and social elements of an entire community. They had to consider what the people would do to keep from going "stir crazy" inside the space station and how much such an installation would cost.

The students were given a price list of structural materials available from Earth, the moon and asteroids, and each group got a personal computer that could produce graphics.

The students had less than 24 hours to research and design their proposals, which were due at 9 a.m. Sunday. At that time, they made 30-minute presentations before the Foundation Society, a fictional organization that awarded the contract.

'Incredible' Proposals

Each presentation had to include a drawing of the basic shape of the settlement, with the locations of residential, industrial, commercial and port areas. It had to describe how artificial gravity would be produced, how people would move around and how much manpower and time it would take to design and build the colony.

Rockwell's Gale described the proposals as "incredible, much beyond expectations."

"It's just amazing how much these kids can produce," she said. "With college kids, you might have a few more accurate computations, (but) you might get a more conventional approach.

"These kids are not fettered by, for example, considerations of rotation dynamics."

Probably foremost in the students' minds was the need to work quickly.

Told to Skip Calculus

To save time, Jim French, a volunteer from American Rocket Co. in Camarillo, who served as Hugmar's chief executive officer, advised his group to skip the calculus and just estimate the size and weight of materials and components.

"You learn to work together in a group better and more efficiently because you have no time," said Tiffany Gibbs, a sophomore from San Gabriel High School who worked on the SVK team. "You have to work efficiently and be well organized in order to accomplish what we did."

The deadline also made sleep a low priority. On Sunday morning, a bleary-eyed SVK team straggled into the JPL cafeteria, bemoaning the fact that none of them had squeezed in more than six hours of sleep all weekend.

Despite their fatigue, spirits were high.

Judges Award Bid

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