‘Science fiction to fact’: NASA hackathon expands its diversity worldwide

© Nick Hankoff
In some 163 locations across 72 countries spanning six continents, hackers joined with scientists, engineers and other creatives to compete in the NASA Space Apps Challenge, a hackathon churning out hundreds of products and solutions in under 72 hours.

2016 marked the fifth and most popular year for the NASA hackathon, but pitching the idea was not easy in the beginning.

"Originally when we talked to the White House and we talked to other federal agencies, we had to call it a code-a-thon, because people just didn't understand that you could hack for good," Deborah Diaz, NASA’s Chief Technology Officer for IT and the event’s creator, told RT.

With the Space Apps Challenge main stage in Pasadena, California, the home of research and development arm Jet Propulsion Laboratory, direct access to top NASA and JPL officials was a major perk for competitors there. However, those officials also made themselves available via livestream and social media to the rest of the world where approximately 17,000 people put their minds to work at supersonic speed from April 23-24.

"You could easily go to Dubai, you could go to Cairo where we have over 700 people. You have all different places where you can watch that creativity," Diaz said.

As the hacking program has expanded in terms of the sheer number of participants, its diversity has also grown.

"The first couple years it was primarily, I would say, about 95 percent male-driven, but now we're probably about a 60-40 around the world,” Diaz told RT. “Also, it's a lot of families. We do try to go after people in the middle schools, and even sometimes younger, so that they will have exposure.”

Read more: 'Birthplace of innovation': Astronaut tells RT how NASA’s Space Apps Challenge can change science

Diversity in talent was just as crucial. Even for NASA, engineers and scientists are not always enough. Artists and marketers were also encouraged to join in the weekend-long event that pitted teams competing in 26 different challenges under six categories spanning from the journey to Mars to drones to the environment.

The judges had their work cut out for them.

"I think the first thing I'm gonna have to work on is emotionally getting over being so amazed by the products that are being developed,” Renee Wynn, NASA’s Chief Information Officer and a judge at the Pasadena event, told RT America. 

Wynn added that she would “move past that and into what was the problem they were trying to solve. Were they able to solve that or at least get some good principles or tenets achieved in what they were trying to do?”

“I'm watching science fiction turn into fact, and that is what NASA is all about,” she said.

Even NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock was in attendance and blown away by those he was there to help.

"One group is developing a sensor that can go into the suit, the suits that we wear on Mars, and actually [it would] be a portable sensor you could put into a pocket or something, even on a shirt you're wearing inside of a pressurized chamber, but it continually monitors the air quality” for dust and gas, he said.

Along with NASA, Pasadena sponsors Microsoft Azure, Socrata, Intel Edison, and Supplyframe Design Lab offered the tools at hand, which were both in hardware and software form. Don’t call it unconditional giving, because these companies mutually gained as much back from the volunteers who showed up to put their data and tools to work in new ways.

“NASA generates a tremendous amount of data, and we can't possibly use all the data in ways that we would like to, just ourselves, so we open these challenges up,” Gale Allen, NASA’s Deputy Chief Scientist told RT America.

Joe Renzullo, one of the many competitors at the Pasadena site, shared his experience using the resources and meeting people for the first time to work together on a project.

“Some people have a lot of experience, and some people have not a lot of experience, and that's great," Renzullo said. "We have people investigating the Intel Edison, we have people who are investigating the Microsoft cloud. I'm working, myself, with the NASA datasets, and we have someone else who is working on our front end, so we're going to combine our work together this afternoon and see what we can turn on and off, what we can make happen."

Renzullo’s team had their prototype ready in a day, with a few hours Sunday morning to polish their presentation to the judges.

Check out RT America's Facebook live video capturing the moment the NASA Space Apps Challenge Pasadena winners were announced, followed by reactions from NASA officials and the winners themselves.