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NASA’s Space Apps Competition Takes on Big Ideas

NASA’s two-day International Space Apps Challenge tries to solve some of the agency’s — and the world’s — biggest challenges.

by / April 23, 2012
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SAN FRANCISCO — Teams gathered around the world on Saturday, April 21, and Sunday, April 22, to participate in NASA’s first International Space Apps Challenge — a “technology development event” that challenges members of the public to find solutions to some of NASA’s biggest challenges.

Some participants met in San Francisco at the TechShop, a workspace that provides resources for various projects.

“It’s part of the Obama administration’s open government strategy and the notion there is that if we open information data access to government, to citizens and people, then they will be able to do amazing things with that data,” NASA CIO Linda Cureton said about the weekend event.

Using NASA’s data, teams on every continent in 24 countries collaborated to develop ideas that address space exploration and the social good. Participants at the San Francisco site worked with other locations by blogging, video chatting and tweeting.

Although called an “apps challenge,” the two-day event — sponsored by a collection of technology companies — called on software developers, designers, project managers and creative minds to also develop software, open hardware, data visualizations and “citizen science platform solutions.”

By the end of the weekend, 12 projects showcasing a collection of solutions were presented at the San Francisco site.

In San Francisco, one team used NASA nighttime sky imaging data to create the beginnings of a Web and mobile app called that calculates how to distribute electricity most efficiently around the world. Another team developed a concept for a deployment capsule for experiments that would be sent into space, a mechanism that could be used for engaging students in science education.

Getting Started

The projects presented at the San Francisco location varied in purpose and the type of technology in play. Brief descriptions of each project were discussed in the space apps video blog post

One San Francisco team led by members of OpenROV — an online community that builds do-it-yourself underwater robots with open source technology — dedicated the weekend to designing additional capabilities for an underwater robot prototype that a member had already been working on. 

David Lang, a team leader for the OpenROV project, said his team focused some of its work during the weekend session on developing a mechanism for the underwater robot that would allow it to take water samples. The team also worked to integrate a PlayStation 3 gamepad as the controller for the robot.

“I know people who have hacked video game controllers for robot projects, and for us, we thought it was a fun way to control the robot,” Lang said.

Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut and one of the competition’s judges, said some of the project’s challenges would better assist astronauts while aboard the International Space Station. Garan wanted participating teams to understand why NASA is focused on looking to the public for new ideas. “There’s challenges that will help us to do our jobs better on the [International] Space Station and will help us explore space better,” he said.

Once challenges were presented, participants chose which project they wanted to work on.

“People rallied around the different challengers and asked them questions like, ‘What do you think goes into this?’ and, ‘I have this skill set, do you think it will be useful?’” said Willow Brugh, the event coordinator for the San Francisco location.

And the Winners Are …

Each of the 12 projects developed at the San Francisco event site were presented to a judging panel that included Chris Vein, U.S. deputy CTO and former San Francisco CIO. 

Two projects, the OpenROV and Daily Myths  — an interactive Web tool that teaches myths and facts about astronomy through trivia-style questions — were both nominated to advance to compete globally in the NASA competition.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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