Reaching for the Stars: The International Space Settlement Design Competition

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

View of Video game design students talking in front of a computer.

Imagine a world where students from different countries collaborate to build a city in space. The International Space Settlement Design Competition (ISSDC) makes this dream a reality by inspiring the next generation of space enthusiasts, engineers, and scientists.

This global event challenges high school students to design a space settlement that can support human life, addressing issues such as energy management, transportation, and sustainability issues.

In this blog, we’ll explore the history, structure, and impact of the International Space Settlement Design Competition, highlighting the remarkable accomplishments of participating students.

International Space Settlement Design Competition

The ISSDC was born out of the vision and dedication of Anita Gale and Dick Edwards, two passionate advocates for space exploration and education.

Recognizing the growing complexity of space industry challenges and the need for diverse expertise to tackle them, Gale and Edwards sought to create a competition that would inspire young minds to think beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.

3 male standing adjacent to each other while the person in the middle is writing on the glass board while the rest of them pays attention

They aimed to foster a new generation of space pioneers equipped with the multidisciplinary knowledge and skills required to address real-world space exploration challenges. In 1994, with the support of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Space Society, the first ISSDC was held.

From National to International

Initially, the ISSDC was a national event, limited to students within the United States. However, it quickly became evident that there was immense potential for expanding the competition beyond national borders. With the shared passion for space exploration transcending cultural and geographical boundaries, Gale and Edwards realized that incorporating international participants would not only create a more diverse and enriching experience but also foster a truly global community of space enthusiasts.

As a result, the competition soon opened its doors to international participants, broadening its reach and impact. With each passing year, the ISSDC continued to grow in size and prestige, drawing hundreds of high school students from across the globe.

The ISSDC Today: A Global Community

The ISSDC has come a long way since its inception in 1994. It has evolved into a prestigious annual event, attracting hundreds of high school students from around the world who are eager to share their passion for space exploration and collaborate on innovative space settlement designs.

The competition now boasts diverse participants, including teams from countries such as India, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and many more. This rich tapestry of cultural backgrounds not only enhances the competition experience but also serves as a powerful reminder of the unifying power of our shared human curiosity and fascination with the cosmos.

The ISSDC has successfully created a global community of space enthusiasts and fostered a spirit of international collaboration. By bringing together young minds from diverse backgrounds, the competition has promoted cross-cultural understanding and enriched the exchange of ideas, perspectives, and problem-solving approaches.

Impacting the Future of Space Exploration

The ISSDC has undeniably left an indelible mark on the lives of countless students who have participated in the competition over the years. Many of these students have pursued careers in the space industry and other STEM fields, inspired by their experiences at the ISSDC. Some have become engineers, scientists, and even astronauts, while others have chosen to pursue leadership roles in space policy and advocacy.

Two astronauts walking on a planet.

As the ISSDC continues to grow and evolve, its impact on the future of space exploration is becoming increasingly significant. The competition serves as a crucial incubator for the next generation of space pioneers, providing them with the multidisciplinary knowledge and skills needed to address the complex challenges of space exploration in the 21st century and beyond.

The International Space Settlement Design Competition has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1983. Thanks to the vision of Anita Gale and Dick Edwards and the collaboration between NASA and the National Space Society, the ISSDC has grown into a prestigious global event that shapes future leaders of space exploration.

By inspiring high school students from around the world to come together and tackle complex space settlement design challenges, the ISSDC has become an integral part of the global space community and a catalyst for the advancement of space exploration.

How Does the International Space Settlement Design Competition Work?

The International Space Settlement Design Competition (ISSDC) is a unique event that invites high school students from around the world to collaborate on designing a space settlement that can support human life.

Like any competition, it aims to inspire students to explore STEM fields and develop essential skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and creativity. Here’s an overview of how the ISSDC works:

Qualifying Round: These regional and national events are held in various countries, allowing students to form teams and compete in the initial stage of the competition. The winning teams from each of these preliminary events are invited to participate in the International Finals.

International Finals: The culmination of the ISSDC, this event brings together the winning teams from the preliminary competitions. Students collaborate with their counterparts from other countries, working together in multinational teams to design a space settlement. The finals are typically held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, U.S., or other notable space facilities.

The Design Process

Participating in the ISSDC requires students to think like engineers, architects, and scientists, as they tackle various aspects of space settlement design. The Request For Proposal highlights five primary engineering disciplines and organizes the company structure accordingly.

These divisions are based on the different aspects necessary for designing and operating a space colony. The RFP content is distributed among these divisions, directing competitors towards tasks that align with their skills and interests.

Structural Engineering: Structural Engineering manages the design and materials for constructing the colony. This department handles the settlement’s exterior design and internal land usage, as well as the mechanical components responsible for maintaining pressure, temperature, radiation protection, and other factors like artificial gravity. The structural department’s designs must include details on size, geometry, and manufacturing methods, and they also oversee the colony’s final construction.

Operations Engineering: Operations Engineering focuses on the design and maintenance planning for the colony’s essential services. These services encompass liquid and solid waste management, atmosphere management, electrical power generation and distribution, and other functions related to the settlement’s purpose.

Human Factors: Human Factors is in charge of designing the colony’s interior living spaces and the services needed for the settlement community. In cases where personal living spaces need to be designed and allocated, this department takes care of home design. They collaborate with the Structural and Operations departments to manage interior land allocation, ensuring that community designs feature residential, commercial, and industrial elements.

Automation Design and Services: Automation Design and Services determines the automated functions of the settlement. This department identifies the roles of robots in the colony, including construction, maintenance, and operation. They also design the implementation of external communications and internal data networks.

Business Development: Business Development is responsible for outlining the settlement’s profit-generating activities. This section liaises with other departments regarding commercial opportunities, industrial manufacturing costs, research and development, and maintenance expenses.

Additionally, the proposal must contain a “Schedule and Costs” section, describing the construction schedule in detail, including location and stages, and the total initial cost broken down by major section and stage of construction.

An extra section called “Special Studies” is added during the finals, which comprises emergency plans to address two disaster scenarios specified by the Request For Proposal (RFP). These scenarios change annually.

Awards and Recognition: The best settlement design, as determined by a panel of expert judges, is awarded the grand prize. The winning team’s design is recognized for its innovation, feasibility, and attention to detail. In addition, individual students may receive awards for their exceptional contributions to their team’s project.

What is the Impact of the ISSDC?

The International Space Settlement Design Competition (ISSDC) leaves a lasting impact on its participants by nurturing their passion for space exploration and essential honing skills needed for success in the field. The competition’s influence can be seen in several key areas:

Encourages collaboration and cross-cultural understanding: The ISSDC assembles students from various cultural and geographical backgrounds, fostering a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect. This diverse environment allows for the exchange of ideas and perspectives, enriching the overall learning experience and promoting a deeper understanding of other cultures.

Develops problem-solving and critical-thinking skills: The ISSDC presents students with intricate design challenges that require a high degree of problem-solving and critical thinking. Participants are encouraged to approach problems from different angles, consider multiple solutions, and ultimately, develop innovative and creative designs. This process helps students hone their analytical and problem-solving abilities, which are invaluable in any field.

two young students studying

Inspires a passion for STEM fields: By immersing students in the captivating world of space exploration, the ISSDC ignites an interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Exposure to real-world space-related challenges and the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded individuals often inspires students to further their education and careers in STEM fields.

Builds leadership and communication skills: As participants collaborate in multinational teams, they must effectively communicate their ideas, delegate tasks, and work together to achieve their goals. This experience helps students develop strong leadership and communication skills, which are crucial in both their professional and personal lives.

Happy young people doing group study in library.

Fosters a sense of global citizenship: The ISSDC encourages students to address real-world challenges and contemplate the broader implications of their designs. By engaging with global issues, participants become more aware of their roles as global citizens and their responsibilities in shaping a better future. This awareness often leads to a lifelong commitment to creating positive change on a global scale.

Creates a network of future space leaders: The ISSDC brings together some of the brightest young minds who share a passion for space exploration. As participants collaborate and compete, they form lasting friendships and professional connections. These networks can prove invaluable as students embark on careers in the space industry, fostering collaboration and innovation in the field for years to come.

Encourages lifelong learning: The ISSDC introduces students to a wide range of topics and disciplines, often sparking curiosity and a desire for continued learning. This experience instills a love for learning that can last a lifetime and help students adapt and thrive in an ever-evolving world.

The ISSDC has a profound and far-reaching impact on its participants, shaping their futures by inspiring a passion for STEM fields, cultivating essential skills, and fostering a sense of global citizenship. The competition serves as a launchpad for the next generation of space leaders, setting the stage for a future filled with innovation, collaboration, and discovery.

What are Some of the Notable Achievements of the Competition?

Over the years, the International Space Settlement Design Competition (ISSDC) has inspired a wide range of innovative and groundbreaking designs. These designs have tackled various challenges in space exploration and colonization, demonstrating the creative potential of young minds. Some notable achievements from the ISSDC include:

Expandable Space Station with Electromagnetic Force Fields: This concept envisions a space station that can be expanded as needed, providing flexibility for growing populations and evolving needs. The design also incorporates electromagnetic force fields to protect inhabitants from harmful radiation and space debris. This approach offers a proactive solution for maintaining the safety of space settlers while minimizing the need for traditional shielding materials.

Lunar Settlement Using Lava Tubes: This innovative design proposes using natural lava tubes found on the Moon as the basis for a lunar settlement. The subterranean tubes offer natural radiation shielding and a stable environment, reducing the need for complex and resource-intensive life support systems. This approach leverages the Moon’s existing geological features to create a more sustainable and cost-effective solution for lunar habitation.

Martian Settlement with Central Atrium: This design centers around a domed central atrium on Mars, serving as a public space and agricultural hub. The atrium provides a sense of community, promoting psychological well-being among the settlers. Additionally, the design focuses on maximizing natural light and creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, further enhancing the livability of the Martian settlement.

Rotating Free-Floating Settlement for Artificial Gravity: This concept proposes a free-floating settlement that generates artificial gravity through rotation. By simulating Earth-like gravity, this design facilitates human habitation and makes long-term space travel more feasible. The rotating structure also opens up new possibilities for space tourism, research, and industrial applications, pushing the boundaries of human presence in space.

Asteroid Mining Facility and Settlement: Another noteworthy design focuses on the development of an asteroid mining facility and associated settlements. This concept envisions harnessing valuable resources from asteroids, such as water and precious metals, which could be utilized for space exploration and colonization. The design also considers the challenges of microgravity environments, proposing innovative solutions for transportation, resource extraction, and habitation.

Space Tourism and Recreation Complex: This design explores the potential of space tourism, proposing a multi-purpose space complex that caters to tourists and researchers alike. The concept includes recreational facilities, such as zero-gravity sports arenas and spacewalk experiences, alongside research and development centers. This design reflects a growing interest in commercial space travel and the potential for new industries in space.

A man looking out to space.

Ultimately, the ISSDC has inspired a wealth of creative and groundbreaking designs that address various challenges and opportunities in space exploration and colonization. These concepts not only demonstrate the ingenuity of young minds but also contribute to shaping the future of human presence in space.


The International Space Settlement Design Competition (ISSDC) is indeed much more than a mere contest; it serves as a vital catalyst for nurturing the future leaders of space exploration. By engaging high school students in envisioning and designing the space habitats of tomorrow, the ISSDC plays a crucial role in sparking a passion for STEM fields and fostering the skills required to transform these visions into reality.

The competition immerses students in the captivating world of space exploration, fostering a deep interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This passion often drives participants to pursue higher education and careers in these fields, contributing to the ongoing growth and success of the space industry and other STEM-related sectors.

As humanity continues to push the boundaries of space exploration, the ISSDC serves as a powerful reminder of the significance of collaboration, creativity, and innovation in shaping our future among the stars. By bringing together students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, the competition encourages the exchange of ideas and fosters a spirit of teamwork that transcends cultural and geographical barriers.

This collaborative environment inspires innovative solutions to complex space settlement challenges and paves the way for groundbreaking advancements in space exploration. Ultimately, the ISSDC not only cultivates the next generation of space pioneers but also fosters a global community united in the pursuit of a shared dream – to explore, understand, and thrive in the vast expanse of space.

Want to learn more about getting a degree related to design or engineering? You’ve come to the right place. At AdmissionSight, we have over 10 years of experience guiding students through the competitive admissions process.

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