NASA International Space Apps Challenge: One Week Afterward!

NASA International Space Apps Challenge: One Week Afterward!


It’s a few days after we had over 50 people gather at Drexel’s ExCITe Center for the Philadelphia Global Mainstage of the International Space Apps Challenge, and my colleague Amelia Longo and I can both finally breathe again! The chaos of running around as an organizer before and during the weekend, making sure participants and teams knew the schedule and had everything they needed to produce some great space hacks, has finally subsided. In its place has been contacting teams to make sure they’ll receive their prizes, editing and posting the videos that came out of our live-streaming experiment, and thanking our generous sponsors that made the event possible: ExCITe, First Round, Amazon, Global Advantage, NASTAR, PHLCVB, Science Center, Chariot Solutions, Github, Jarvus, K’NEX, and Ticketleap.

We infused the event with local flavor, including a food truck lunch on Saturday and awesome Mike Tedeschi-designed t-shirts with Philly icons. From young high school students at their first hackathon to other folks new to the hacking scene, we had a great crowd and diverse range of participants with technical and artistic abilities. At 14-years-old, Philly’s youngest participant helped craft the winning team’s International Space Station tracking device with an Arduino microcontroller and locally-manufactured K’NEX building kits. Our location host, Youngmoo Kim of Drexel University’s STEAM-focused ExCITe Center, joined in on the “Listening to the Stars” challenge by playing the sounds of stars through the electromagnetically-enabled piano strings of a specially modified Magnetic Resonator Piano.

Even NASA astronaut Leland Melvin got to play! First graders at a local school also made a star sound concert. Other amazing projects included a light up skirt; two apps with Leap Motion antics; Ruby, D3.js, and Python apps; an astronaut training program; a project that liberated some data; video interviews; and even tools that will get used at both a Phillies game and the ISS.

Personally, being at the event was more exciting than planning it. To be perfectly honest, Amelia and I (along with others at Azavea) were spending so much time on organizing the Space Apps Challenge in the weeks before the event that I was a bit frustrated at how much effort this hackathon and coordinating with NASA was taking. A small part of me doubted whether Space Apps was worth it. That part of me quieted itself over the weekend as I saw how genuinely enthusiastic our participants were to be working on cool projects. I got into the swing of things, running around tweeting and helping teams and NASA do their work. (I actually like that mid-event chaos!) I warmed when I saw the pure joy on people’s faces when they won some of our awesome prizes from NASTAR Center, K’NEX, and Amazon. I smiled at our happy hour on Sunday when many folks stopped to shake my hand for a job well done and say thanks for how much fun they had. Still, the tiniest of doubts remained in my mind.

That nagging doubt was obliterated last Thursday by a certain Director of Civic Technology for the City of Philadelphia, Tim Wisniewski. As I was talking with Tim at another PhillyTechWeek event about how Space Apps fits into Philadelphia’s actually rather short 3-4 year history of civic hackathons, PhillyTechWeeks, and other events, he stopped me. “I tell everyone this is the coolest one! Philadelphia got to have the NASA hackathon. That will be in the history books,” said Tim. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but his point was that Space Apps is cool, memorable, and relatable in ways other hackathons won’t be.

Tim is absolutely right. NASA and the space program’s work is met with adoration from geeks, nerds, and humans of all stripes and colors here in the US and across the world. Space science is also able to inspire wonder in the most diverse audience of people aside from the typical science and tech nerds. Who hasn’t looked up at the night sky with awe before? It should be seen as a milestone for Philadelphia’s slowly-but-surely growing civic tech community that NASA chose us to be at the center – the Global MainStage – of what is to date the largest hackathon in the world. Internationally, 9,147 humans decided to spend two days of their lives designing, building, coding, brainstorming, and collaborating on cheap, quick, fascinating bits of technology to solve real mission-oriented challenges present in NASA, ESA, and other space programs. Our 50+ Philadelphia participants should be proud of the technical solutions they put together themselves. It should be celebrated that the largest hackathon ever was in fact a collaborative, civic event organized by a major government agency in partnership with volunteers around the world – taken seriously even in the face of substantial budget cuts at NASA. Finally, as the civic technology community both in Philadelphia and elsewhere tries to welcome newcomers into the fold, we can hold up Space Apps as a key example of how we work (collaboratively) and what we’re trying to do (solve civic challenges) so that hopefully hacking newcomers can get excited too. For me, at least, those will be the lasting takeaways from Space Apps and cause me to mention it in conversations far into the future.

Even though, after 3 months, my friends and family are sick and tired of hearing me talk about working with astronauts and NASA.

“Did somebody say NASA?!”