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May 2, 2014

Rising to the (Space Apps) Challenge



On a bright and sunny Saturday morning—which happened to be the 53rd anniversary of the first-ever orbit of Earth, made by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—four dozen people spent 36 hours working on simple, clever applications that could improve life on Earth and benefit future NASA space research.

The Baltimore-Washington Space Apps Challenge, part of the International Space Apps Challenge, was held April 12–13 at APL. Teams of technology professionals, college students, grade-school kids and parents, and space hobbyists used open data to create hardware, software, mobile applications, and other innovations. The Space Apps Challenge, a two-day marathon of coding that took place in 95 locations around the globe with more than 8,000 participants, is a NASA incubator innovation program; the Baltimore/Washington event was sponsored by APL and Baltimore-based interactive agency Bolster Labs.

“We were very impressed with the passion and energy that participants brought to the event,” said Nate Parsons of APL, one of the event organizers, and a flight software engineer on NASA’s Solar Probe Plus mission. “Hosting this event helped me reconnect with the excitement that helped draw me into this field when I was younger.”

To kick off the event, former NASA astronaut Donald Thomas (who flew on four space shuttle missions in the mid and late 1990s) began the morning by sharing photos and stories from his career. The technology at the Space Apps challenge in many ways rivaled what he had as an astronaut. “When I flew, we had film cameras,” said Thomas, who also described using paper maps while in orbit. “I’m glad I don’t have to compete with the kids today, and with the tools they have. It’s really exciting to see all the young people here today. These kids are the brains of future programs.”

After dozens of hours of hard work from the teams, two winners were selected by the judges. GravityApp, an iOS app that shows the force exerted by gravity at any location on Earth, was selected for “best use of data.” A game created by three young students called Orion 13: Asteroid Prospector—in which players must survey and mine asteroids to refuel a spacecraft—won “most inspiring.” GravityApp is now being judged as part of the global Space Apps finals, with winners to be announced in May.

“The middle and high school students we had gave the adults a run for their money,” Parsons said. “They were building robots, programming games, deploying web sites, and designing spacecraft.”

“The Space Apps Challenge helps to remind us that excitement about space and space-related topics remains high,” said Ben Slavin, CEO of Bolster Labs. “The results it produced show that citizen scientists are a useful, creative, and important addition to government programs, and non-government initiatives.”

The importance of projects to improve space research and the quality of life here on Earth is clear to those, like Thomas, who have ventured above our world. “Looking back at the Earth, you just gasp,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to take better care of this planet. I wish everyone could go into space for just 30 seconds, just to look at our planet. It would change everyone’s perspective on protecting Earth.”

Media contact: Geoff Brown, 240-228-5618, Geoffrey.Brown@jhuapl.edu