Bhupinder Rathore, an SFU engineering undergrad (back row, centre), proudly stands behind a group of Surrey high school students he is coaching for an international space competition.

News release: SFU helps high-school students hit NASA landing pad

July 05, 2012

With 10 Surrey high-school students under his wing, Bhupinder (Sumit) Rathore, a Simon Fraser University engineering undergrad, is all set to blast off to the final of the 18th annual International Space Settlement Competition (ISSDC).

It unfolds July 27 to 31 at the Lyndon B. Johnston Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

This is the second consecutive year that Rathore, a space buff since childhood, and a group of Princess Margaret Secondary school students are participating in the competition’s invitation-only final. Once again they comprise the only Canadian team.

“I’ll never forget the first time that I went,” says Rathore. “I felt as though I was being mentored as much as I was mentoring students.” Last year, his mentorship of four Princess Margaret students got them into the ISSDC finals, making them the first Canadians to reach the finals.

This year, Rathore, a third-year undergrad specializing in computer engineering, has got a new team of 10 Princess Margaret students into the finals. He has spent up to nine hours a week since December, on top of his own studies, coaching his protégés in physics.

“We are experiencing again the same mental exhaustion from having to absorb enormous amounts of science and work under tight deadline pressure. But this competition gives me an unparalleled opportunity to grow in decision-making, leadership, strategizing and observing deadlines in space engineering, my dream field.”

Co-founded by space exploration advocates and supported by big names in the aerospace industry, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Boeing Company, the ISSDC targets high-school students globally.

Every December, students aged 15 to 19 are invited to form teams of up to 12 contestants and enter the initial semi-final round of the competition on-line. They are encouraged to enlist the help of a mentor, typically a teacher.

By mid-March, they have to submit a 40-page proposal on how they would design and build a space colony for 14,200 people; this year’s semi-final proposal was for a mining colony orbiting Mercury.  ISSDC organizers in collaboration with NASA astronauts and space engineers decide the colony’s location and design and construction parameters.

Based on the strongest submissions, ISSDC organizers invite 12 teams of students globally to enter or observe the competition’s final round in Houston.

Under the guidance of their mentors, the finalists must compete for a contract with NASA to design and construct another space colony — this year it’s Venus — conceived of by the ISSDC organizers. The teams can’t rely on information gathered from their semi-final proposals or the Internet. They must use only their mentor, NASA’s library and a panel of astronauts and aerospace engineers as resources.

Referring to Rathore, Karen Lee, the communications officer for SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences says: “It’s unique that a student is mentoring a student team for this competition. Usually only high-school teachers or university faculty are the mentors.”

Simon Fraser University is Canada's top-ranked comprehensive university and one of the top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old. With campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, B.C., SFU engages actively with the community in its research and teaching, delivers almost 150 programs to more than 30,000 students, and has more than 120,000 alumni in 130 countries.

Backgrounder: SFU helps high-school students hit NASA landing pad

Prince Margaret Secondary teachers enthusiastically anointed Rathore as their team’s ISSDC competition mentor after a Grade 12 student, who has since graduated, recommended him.

The competition is designed to give students an opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers using a variety of skills, knowledge and teamwork to design a space colony. They work alongside aerospace industry engineers and managers.

In their 40-page semi-final proposal, teams must outline in detail their overall plan for a livable city that includes schools, hospitals and recreation space. They must also propose methods for growing food and using future technology to nurture human settlements in space.

The ISSDC puts together teams from different countries to collaborate on the final project. The grouped teams have 41 hours at NASA to prepare and present a 50-slide presentation on their proposal.

Rathore will help his team collaborate with teams from Australia, the United States (Colorado) and Pakistan on developing a final proposal for a city on Venus.

“The biggest challenge,” says Rathore, “will be crystallizing which team has the best ideas and getting everyone to support them. In the end, we’ll have to present one proposal supported by everyone.”

The winning finalists get an Oscar-type trophy with a genuine meteorite embedded in it and an impressive list of NASA astronauts and aerospace engineers as résumé references.

To help fund its trip, the Prince Margaret Secondary team is trying to raise $15,000 to $16,000 through public donations.

For information about making a donation, contact Neder Dhillon, Princess Margaret Secondary School principal, at

Bhupinder Rathore, 604.347.7343,
Karen Lee, 778.782.8923,
Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 778.782.3035,

Photos on Flickr

Note: Surrey School district documentary on Princess Margaret Secondary's entry in last year’s ISSDC competition.

To see all the proposals making it to the finals, visit