Carroll High School senior Colton Thompson (left) became vice president of robotics during the 24-hour competition.
Carroll High School senior Colton Thompson (left) became vice president of robotics during the 24-hour competition.
April 17, 2014

The mission: Design a space station to house 10,000 people while orbiting the sun to capture, research and mine asteroids throughout the solar system.

At midnight Saturday, March 29, nearly 200 high school students in a National Aeronautics and Space Administration hangar in Houston, Texas, went to work.

Among those students were Carroll High School seniors Lauren Janning, Daric Teske and Colton Thompson and junior Brady Bender. The students, under the supervision of CHS chemistry teacher Kent Muyskens, were attending the NASA Johnson Space Center regional semifinal of the 2014 Space Settlement Design Competition.

After an 18-hour bus ride, lengthened by a delay from a broken alternator, an afternoon on a beach in Galveston and an evening of socializing with their Iowa and Texas peers, the students were split into four teams, with each member of the Carroll High School contingent assigned to a different team.

The teams, each its own company, were further divided into four departments - structural engineering, in charge of actually drawing the designs for the settlement infrastructure; operational engineering, charged with determining how the various systems on the settlement, such as sewer or agriculture, would function; automation engineering, designing the robots and computer systems that would run the systems on the station; and human engineering, ensuring that the living and working environments on the station would provide tools to meet all of the various human needs.

Each team had a chief executive officer, a.k.a. a NASA engineer; a company president, elected by their peers; a vice president of engineering, charged with coordinating the efforts of the various departments; and a marketing vice president, leading the team that compiled all of the engineering proposals into a 50-slide, 35-minute presentation.

Each group received a three-hour briefing before breaking to spend the next 21 to 23 straight hours developing the proposals they began presenting at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

Muyskens, who took students from Panorama High School for two years before joining the Carroll High School staff this fall, said the competition is as close to "real-life" as a high school student can get.

"It puts them in a situation where they experience a lot of stress and have to get through it," he said. "They're given too much information and not enough time."

And he loves to watch students rise to the challenge.

By the end of the weekend, Thompson, who plans to pursue aerospace engineering, had become the vice president of robotics; Bender, who plans to study architecture, became the director of his team's structural engineering department; Janning, who intends to study biology, had made the jump from human engineering to marketing leader; and Teske helped his team win the competition, presenting a design detailed down to the taco truck that would provide some of the station's food.

"We were starting from the ground up, planning a city in space," Thompson said.

Set 35 years in the future, there were "literally no wrong ideas," Bender added.

Each proposed station had some similarities - all featured a rotating design in order to create artificial gravity - as well as some differences - one team designed its greenhouse to grow plants in tubes that could be rotated, enabling it to grow three times the food in the same space with each side of plants rotated to receive a full eight hours of sun exposure each day.

"It was inspiring to be in a building all the astronauts walked in at some point," Janning said as the students recalled the Apollo rockets displayed in the warehouse and the space shuttle, lunar rover and space suit fixed to the 50-foot-high ceiling in Building Nine.

Thompson, Teske and Bender admitted to being science-fiction fans with a love for space. Their departments aligned perfectly with the areas they plan to study after graduation. Janning cited the high-pressure environment as the most valuable training piece for her - she plans to become a physician.

But the students agreed that the best part of the experience, by far, was the people they met. Though all of the students were in school in Iowa or Texas, their ethnic backgrounds ranged much further, as far east as India and Pakistan, Teske said.

"It was a culture shock," Thompson said. "But you forgot about it once you started working with them."

The room also wasn't full of "nerdy" students, like one might expect, Janning was quick to point out.

The students estimate that they slept a total combined 24 hours between leaving Carroll at noon the Thursday before the competition and arriving home around 2 p.m. on the Monday following.

"We were running on pure adrenalin," Teske said.

And with the exception of a few stolen minutes caught on a hangar floor, most of the participants didn't want to sleep, Janning added - they were having too much fun.

Bender said the experience challenged him, pushing him to test his limits and react under pressure.

"Everybody has something to offer," he said.

The lone junior in this year's Carroll contingent, Bender hopes he'll have the opportunity to return next year.

Muyskens hopes to comply. He cites the space settlement design competition - which has existed under various organizational leadership for roughly 30 years - as the best of its kind, hitting a variety of real-life applications for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

"Honestly, these kids could be designing this stuff 30 years from now," he said.