As a child, Navonil Neogi of Barrackpore loved to play with his grandfather, who was an engineer. Perhaps it was while playing with his engineer grandfather that the research bug got into him, and motivated him to explore how things happen. Sketches and books related to space also interested him from a very young age. These factors played a big role in developing within him a deep interest in physics and specifically, space science, from a very young age.
Now Navonil has done his school, parents, and well-wishers proud by winning the first prize in the individual section under the 'Grade 7 and Under’ category at the prestigious 2013 Space Settlement Design Contest, organised by NASA. He was representing Tiffin School in Sunbury, near London, where he currently studies, as his father holds a job in England.1,536 students from 20 countries took part. 592 projects were submitted, which competed for prizes in nine categories. This annual competition has been held since 1994 and is becoming popular worldwide.
The participants were allowed to compete both as individuals and as teams. The competition was extremely tough as one had to compete against students from all over the world. Navonil to his credit won the prize in the individual section.
The aim of the competition was to create models for settlements in orbits, that is, in spacecraft; hence the name ‘space settlement’. These settlements would be for ordinary people, unlike spacecraft today which are for highly specialised astronauts. According to the contest website, ‘based on the materials available, the human population in orbit could one day exceed ten trillion, living in millions of space colonies with a combined living space hundreds of times the surface of the Earth.’
The attractions and advantages of a space settlement, according to the website, are many. For the handicapped, staying at zero gravity can make wheelchairs and walkers redundant as they would be moving by floating around freely. In-orbit penal colonies would be almost escape-proof. People who want to experiment with social and political forms would find a suitable environment for their experimental living, away from the hassles of earthly encumbrances.
The projects had to follow certain basic guidelines regarding a habitable space colony. This included a large enough size, a breathable atmosphere, soil to absorb radiation, and an independent biosphere (oxygen, water, wastes, and other materials must be recycled endlessly, as the limited space should ideally not be wasted to store waste material).
The 12-year-old Navonil’s model of the space city consisted of a number of buildings for habitation, recycling plants, solar panels on the roof for generating renewable energy, and a whole host of structures for various purposes. It was titled ‘Olympus Space Settlement’. The name is significant in that Olympus stands for heaven in Greek mythology, and this is a space settlement, high up in heaven, so to say.
As part of his prize, the extremely talented Navonil got to go to San Diego in California where he met Buzz Aldrin, the second man to land on the moon. He is understandably elated over meeting Aldrin. In an interview to Your Local Guardian website, he said, "It was really cool. I just thought – he has been to the moon, and it was quite a strange situation… I asked him about Mars exploration."
His teachers and parents are equally overjoyed. According to his school’s head teacher, Navonil has amazing skills and is one to watch out for. In an interview to The Statesman, the proud mother listed his precocious talents and achievements. He would “render his imagination of the world through sketches and also jot down scientific causes behind specific instances in them." He also has “great interest in writing books and creating music” and is already a published author, having written a book called The Invisible Camera. The proud grandfather, Susanta Neogi, who inspired him, says, "We will make sure that after he completes his education he will represent our country in various fora."
To relax in his spare time, the young scientist likes to play the piano. His ambition is to become an astrophysicist. The talent that Navonil has shown at this young age is a sure pointer towards greater things to come.
We wish him every success in his future endeavours, and may he make his country proud.