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    Forty-Eight Hours at NASA's Biggest Hackathon

    Written by

    Julian Taub

    (Photo: Alice Ng, NY Tech Council)

    Sam Wilkinson figured out how to bake bread in space. Last weekend, the 16-year-old from Oxford and winner of the 2012 NASA Space Apps Challenge, waved at a gaggle of hackers and reporters over video projection. It was the first day of the 2013 Space Apps Challenge, and Wilkinson was offering up some advice on what projects to tackle and what to expect over the next 48 hours. 

    The 2013 NASA Space Apps Challenge was the biggest hackathon known to man, with 9,000 registered participants scattered across 83 locations around the world--and on the International Space Station. I had the chance to check out the challenge’s New York City site. Boasting some 350 registrants (around 200 showed up), it was arguably one of the biggest hubs in the global contest. With introductions complete, everyone broke off into separate teams to tackle any one of 58 challenges.

    “I personally believe that NASA is filled with brilliant rocket scientists and engineers, and we’re doing awesome things,” Nick Skytland told me. “But to truly solve the grand challenges, we have to engage people from around the world in solving them with us.”

    Skytland is the Program Manager of NASA’s Open Government Program and creator of the Space Apps Challenge. He went on to explain the event’s origins, which stem from the agency’s pushback against Random Hacks of Kindness collaborations.

    “NASA leadership asked us what a hackathon has to do with NASA,” he added, “and we said, ‘We’d love to show you. Are you willing to take a risk and let us?’”

    Hack infomural (Julian Taub)

    Skytland was amazed how quickly the event grew in just a year’s time. To his estimation, this year’s Challenge was almost four times larger than last year's.

    “I can’t even imagine what’s going to come out of this weekend,” Skytland admitted. “I’m walking around here and these solutions are incredible. It gives me goosebumps thinking about what people can do.”

    Skytland toured the New York hub, engaging every collaborating group not only on the impact of their hack, but also on the potential opportunities that may spin off from their projects somewhere down the line. As an advocate for non-monetized collaboration, he tries to steer away from what he calls the “culture of competition."

    “It’s our job as a government agency to aggregate those contributions no matter how small, to help further space exploration,” he said. “People want to contribute and change the world. Let’s let them.”

    “The nature of space is that it touches us from all angles of the globe. And so the data that we take about our own planet comes from space and it tells us stuff about areas all over the surface of our planet,” said Jennifer Gustetic, the Prizes and Challenges Executive at NASA who helped craft many of the challenges and moonlit as a judge on some of the final projects. “There’s also great skills everywhere in the world, especially in the development communities, in the additive manufacturing communities, in the design communities. It’s really interesting to see what people can do when they collaborate across boundaries to create solutions.”

    Immediately after the event kicked off, high school students met with astronaut Ron Garan, who led an international Google Hangout. 

    “We had an astronaut in Italy, in Philly, and then up here in New York, and we had tie-ins with Japan, with London, and Toronto,” said Deborah Diaz, Deputy Chief Information Officer at NASA. “There were about ten different areas that were all pulling into this Google Hangout and then we had people virtually around the world that were watching this, getting excited about it, and really taking the lessons learned from these astronauts and applying them to the real life challenges that we have.”

    Astronaut Ron Garan loves pizza (via Alice Ng, NY Tech Council)

    Throughout the hackathon, innovation was infectious. Clusters of people huddled over their computers or hardware, mapping out their projects, scrapping ideas, and improvising solutions. Participants roamed from table to table, lending friendly tips and even spare hardware. Online, folks could enter their contact information onto the Space Apps Hackpad, and work with individuals in any of the seven continents or Low Earth orbit. We all joked together, dreamt together, and suffered through a sleepless night together.

    “I think it’s fantastic that so many people, from such a diverse background of disciplines have gotten involved this year,” said Mike Caprio, Community Leader of Startup Bus and co-organizer of the event. “We have folks who are mathematicians, aerospace engineers, scientists from all manner of backgrounds, biologists. We’ve got all the designers and developers we can possibly bring out.”

    “What I love about this event is that it allows everyday people, who may not work in tech or science, to get involved with these projects,” said Alice Ng, Director of Community and Events at the New York Technology Council who was co-running the New York hub. “Projects that NASA does tend to have a high entry, high barrier to entry, so this type of hackathon allows people just like you and I to get involved.”

    People like James Wanga, a software developer at HBO, whose team wanted to build a drone that could map the surface of an asteroid with lasers.

    “I got the idea when I watched the movie Prometheus," Wanga said, "and I saw the little drone that goes through the cave and maps the wall of the cave, so that they can get a three-dimensional view, and I thought that would be an awesome thing to do.”

    Wanga's team divided into three subgroups--one hacking into a quadricopter drone, another working on the math for reading the mapping sensors and positioning the drone, and Wanga himself writing the code for the mapping technology. Originally, the drone team was going to ask some grad students to take some lasers from a nearby lab, but they settled for sonar, which is lighter and need less power to run.

    Part of their laser-drone team split off to create their own project, “Chillin’ on Mars”. Edwin Rogers, along with a 3D-rendering developer, created a virtual interactive website where the viewer navigates through Curiosity’s footage as if walking around the red planet. The idea sparked when he saw an Occulus VR (virtual reality goggles) lying around in one of the rooms.

    “I just picked it up, and I immediately thought if we take the Mars rover information and you get a sense that you were ON MARS,” Rogers told me. 

    Team Space Races shows off their stuff (Alive NG / NY Tech Council)

    Space Races, another project, teaches kids how to be fiscally responsible when planning a NASA mission. The brainchild of an aerospace engineer, a graphic designer, a mathematician, and a code ninja, the game lets you create your own trip to a nearby asteroid, helps you pick out supplies needed for the journey and then projects the final cost. The team wanted to give people a sense of what goes into mission budgeting choices without putting too much on the user’s plate.

    Robert Carlson, a software engineer at an advertising agency, teamed up with a few high school kids and two developers to work on 3D printing star cluster sculptures.

    “I initially came across this when I looked at a data visualization done by artist Robert Hodgin,” Carlson said. “He made a screen saver called ‘Look Up,’ which was done to help make a personal connection to the vastness of space, and how we transit from one star to another. And I was thinking, would there be a way to turn that into a physical model, that you can then hold, and therefore get a more personal connection to where we exist in our cosmic neighborhood.”

    There were also ambassadors from various sponsoring tech companies, like Aviary, Shapeways, Foursquare, and Twilio, helping hackers implement their product’s APIs.

    “Mashing up the power of a really good API with NASA’s data, that’s a powderkeg,” Caprio, the event's co-organizer, said. The team that best utilized a specific API won a prize from that company.

    Before long, towards the final presentations, the entire floor grew quiet. Entrants strained the last bits of code, the final few tweaks. When the main hacking room was emptied to set up, participants filtered out and sat on couches in the waiting room, greeting their friends and families. Some were nervous to present their hacks, but everyone was excited to see what solutions people came up with. They sped through the 20 presentations, with the audience gasping and cheering for each idea. Up front, Gustetic, Garan, the veteran tech consultant David Hochman, and Liz Barry, the Director of Urban Environment at the Public Laboratory of Open Technology, judged the completed hacks.

    “I’m looking for how well the team collaborated together,” Garan explained. “What the potential is, you know, how realistic is it, how valuable is it, what type of impact can it make.”

    The judges doled out six awards--four for each type of hack, two for entry to the international judging phase. Versioning Goat, a database that copies and syncs NASA’s data across different locations, won Best Open Data. Asteroid Mapper won Best Open Hardware. Roid Hopper, an interactive website with locations of near-Earth asteroids and a table of the time needed for a mission to each of them, won Most Galactic Impact. Chillin’ on Mars, won Most Inspiring. Tiny See Bots, a program where you can control an underwater robot over the internet, and MySpaceCalNYC, a calendar that outlines what each telescope will be pointing at for a given time, were nominated for international judging. MySpaceCalNYC went on to win at international judging and shared the global victory with projects from Philadelphia, Toronto, Kansas City, Jakarta, and a virtual collaboration between Florida and San Francisco. 

    Both organizers and participants are optimistic about the future of NASA Space Apps. “I see momentum growing from this year to next, and then, an upward trajectory,” Gustetic said.

    What did it for Wangs was what he saw as a lack of competitive anxiety that invades similar hackathons. “This was very inspiring for me," he said. "If I wasn’t here, I’d be cynical that such events could exist,”

    Even after it all wrapped up, participants went on discussing the potential of their projects and the next stages of development. Many are also looking forward to evolving it beyond the confines of an annual event.

    “I’d like for all these solutions and the networks built with the teams to continue,” Diaz explained. “Maybe next quarter we’ll have people get together again, and either enhance their application, or reach out to others and start developing a ground-swell of people interested in these challenges that we face.”