by Dot Cannon
What mental image do you get, when you hear, “hack-a-thon”?
Add to that: kindness, inclusivity and a sense of community–and you’ll have a pretty clear picture of NASA’s Space Apps Challenge 2016 event, which happened April 22nd through 24th in Pasadena.
NASA’s Space Apps is a free event, now in its fifth year. People from all backgrounds get to collaborate. (The only caveat: this fills up fast! Our location had a waitlist, as did a number of others.) This collaboration, using NASA data, aims at creating projects which solve problems–either in space, or globally.
Pasadena’s Cross Campus facility hosted Pasadena’s edition of Space Apps 2016. The preliminary event, Friday morning, April 22nd, was an orientation of sorts.
“In Space Apps, we have eighty per cent of men that take part,” said NASA Open Innovation Program Manager Beth Beck. “(I started wondering how to) get more women to see that data and technology is a compelling thing.”
The answer was the introduction of NASA’s Women in Data Boot Camp, in 2015. This second annual one, on Friday, showcased speakers from a variety of backgrounds.
“The theme of today is ‘hacking life’,” Beth told the capacity audience of both women and men, as the speaker presentations started. “We really are life hackers, like makers, because you have to make it work.”
Making things work was a main topic during astronaut Doug Wheelock’s presentation. Doug recalled his time aboard the International Space Station in 2007. The mission was historic, he said. This was the first time two spaceships were going to dock together, and both commanders were women.
“Our commander said, ‘OK, no drama, let’s just get up there and get home,'” he recalled.
(Of course, a frayed guide wire had other ideas–and led to some suspenseful in-space repairs!)
The final presentation of the morning was a series of TED-like talks from seven women–each with seven minutes to give the audience her “tech hacks and life hacks.”
“Soft circuits look like everyday arts and crafts materials,” said Blink Blink CEO Nicole Messier. “Hacking is really just making anything more functional for you.”
“Geology is both storytelling and art,” said Emily Lakdawalla, Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist of The Planetary Society. “You get just the tiniest clues.”
“How can we harness our inner penguins?” asked Intel Fellow Amber Huffman, alluding to penguins’ ability to survive a tough environment. “…The secret weapon is, how do we support each other.”
“Wow,” said Beth Beck, as the presentations concluded.
The afternoon would be equally wow-inducing, with ten “stardust stations” set up throughout the facility. Visitors were given ten minutes to explore each, and select a project on which they wanted to collaborate, for the weekend.
Among the presenters replacing “intimidating” with “wow” was JPL Mechatronics Engineer Michelle Easter. In her allotted ten minutes, she taught attendees binary code–with an interactive approach and this horizontal diagram.
“Wasn’t that easy?” she asked. And, in fact, the answer was, “yes”!
NASA’s 2016 Space Apps Challenge had at least sixty-two countries involved, with more than sixteen thousand people participating, according to NASA Chief Technology Officer for IT Deborah Diaz. However, she said, that number was likely to increase.
“Lots of people work virtually,” she explained.
After Friday’s introduction, participants chose teams with which they could collaborate on projects. Artists, storytellers, coders, students and anyone else with an interest in the projects were all equally welcome. In fact, that sense of welcome was built right into Space Apps’ code of conduct.
“We can sum it up in two words: ‘be kind’,” said NASA Space Apps Pasadena Organizer Joe Brisbois.
By Saturday morning’s sign-in, some attendees were not yet members of teams. That wasn’t a problem.
“It always works out,” Joe said.
And, indeed, it did–with seventeen projects being presented in the final Space Apps competition on Sunday afternoon. One of the top winners was, in fact, a one-person team.
But that’s another story–which will be forthcoming.
This is Part One of a three-part series.