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A 'nerd' shoots for the stars, and NASA comes knocking

Toronto teen's intergalactic Canada takes top prize in space contest

From Friday's Globe and Mail

TORONTO — By Grade 9, Eric Yam's science-geek pedigree was already approaching a state of high polish – starting with Lego blocks, he had advanced steadily through calculus, radio-controlled robots and wind turbine design. Then his teacher asked him to take on a new challenge: to design a space colony that could be home to 10,000 people, and serve as a lifeboat for humanity should the Earth come to a bad end.

For the next three years, Mr. Yam bent himself to the task, finally arriving at his ultimate design: a 1.6-kilometre-high, one-kilometre-wide intergalactic structure that makes Starship Enterprise look like a toy.

Mr. Yam's obsession has paid off: This week, he was announced as the grand-prize winner of NASA's Space Settlement Competition, the only Canadian to win in the contest's 16-year history. At Toronto's Northern Secondary School, where Mr. Yam is a Grade 12 honour-roll student, word of his victory ran through the hallways.

“Dude, you won a space station contest!” one girl said. “That's huge!”

“Space colony,” Mr. Yam corrected.

Mr. Yam's win has vaulted him into the junior science elite. His work has been published on NASA's website, and later this month he will make a presentation to some of the world's top space experts at a Florida conference. It has also put him in the good books at Northern. “We are incredibly proud of Eric,” principal Varla Abrams said. “His vision for the future is a plan that literally could change our universe.”

For Mr. Yam, 16, the win came as a shock. (He got the news in science class, where he was working on the design of a roller coaster.) By Thursday, the news had sunk in. “It's great,” he said. “Finally some recognition.”

His win was the result of a long, evolutionary effort. He entered the NASA contest for the first time in Grade 9, submitting a 15-page proposal. By this year, it had grown to 92 pages, filled with detailed drawings done in Google SketchUp, a program he downloaded from the Internet.

Mr. Yam, who is finishing high school in three years – and plans to go on to the University of Waterloo in engineering – freely describes himself as a nerd, then defines the term: “A nerd is someone who has undying dedication to an academic subject.” Mr. Yam's favourite television show is How It's Made, a documentary that details the production of common items. He goes to school dances (but not clubs) and has never had a girlfriend. Asked if his new science stardom might help land one, he replies: “I haven't thought about that.”

Ironically, Mr. Yam does not consider himself an astronomy buff, although he does have a passing interest in Star Trek. “I watch the show,” he said, “but I don't go to the conventions or anything.”

Mr. Yam's project involved thousands of complex decisions, starting with the basic shape of the colony. His first concept was a giant, spinning ring, about eight kilometres across. Several iterations later, he decided on smaller rings, stacked into a tall cylinder and arranged around a central shaft. If one ring is damaged, it can be sealed off, like a waterproof compartment in a submarine. Mr. Yam also decided that his colony would have artificial gravity, produced by thrusters that spin the entire colony.

Although he briefly considered a zero-gravity environment, Mr. Yam rejected it for a number of reasons, including health. “You get osteoporosis without gravity,” he said. The gravity issue affected many other elements of the design, including food preparation and plumbing. Although a weightless environment demands astronaut-style food in a tube and special bathroom facilities, Mr. Yam's station has traditional kitchens and standard-issue toilets.

“You've got to go low-tech wherever you can,” he said. “The idea is to use existing technology.”

Mr. Yam's proposal includes everything from financial analyses (he suggests a series of methods to fund the multi-trillion-dollar project) to food supply (hydroponic farms and meat grown in tubes) to the critical matter of how to get the massive structure into space. On this score, Mr. Yam has a number of proposals, including a “launch loop” that could hurl giant components into space using a four-kilometre-long magnetic-levitation sled.

Mr. Yam's proposal also includes a method for choosing space colony inhabitants, which is based on Canadian federal immigration policy, assigning points based on criteria that include age, education and marital status. Mr. Yam believes that this approach would produce a balanced, relatively harmonious culture that would be a kind of intergalactic Canada.

“No country is perfect,” he said. “But Canada is pretty great. It's an excellent model.”

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