Skip directly to content

The NASA International Space Apps Challenge

on Wed, 04/09/2014 - 00:00

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to both Congress and the country. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” he declared. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon. If we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

A little over eight years later, that challenge was inevitably met as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. A lot has changed in the decades since, however, and the future of space exploration no longer depends on one country or nation but the international community as a whole. Private companies such as SpaceX are now just as vital as NASA, and budding techies are just as important as seasoned engineers. It was within this Twenty First Century atmosphere that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched the International Space Apps Challenge, a two-day, worldwide “hackathon” where everyone from students and entrepreneurs to scientists and software developers work together to design “open source solutions to address global needs applicable to both life on Earth and life in space.” Eighty-three cities in forty-four countries participated in the 2013 International Space Apps Challenge, with Pittsburgh joining the fray for the 2014 version, scheduled to take place over the weekend of April 12th at the TechShop in Bakery Square.

The Steel City edition of the International Space Apps Challenge is being hosted by Space Challenges, a Pittsburgh nonprofit whose goal is to promote STEM education via space exploration-based competitions. In June 2014, Space Challenges hopes to launch its own national “challenge”—the STEM Lunar Challenge—in which students across the country will be encouraged to create lunar exploration-themed products and businesses. The organization is taking the lead in bringing the NASA International Space Apps Challenge to town in an effort to raise awareness for its own local and national efforts. “Our mission is to promote STEM education through competitions using space exploration for inspiration,” Space Challenges executive director Richard Behana told NEXTPittsburgh. “This event nails that right on the head. What’s really awesome about this event is you don’t have to be a software person or engineer. It’s a hackathon, but there’s really something for everybody. And it’s free, even the food.”

The NASA International Space Apps Challenge is divided into five sections—Asteroids, Earth Watch, Human Spaceflight, Robotics and Technology in Space. Within each of those sections, meanwhile, are a variety of challenges, ranging from easy to intermediate to advanced, which attendees in various cities across the globe can choose from and design applications. Under the heading “Technology in Space,” for instance, is the challenge “bring the Internet to deep space exploration,” while “Earth Watch” asks participants to “create an app that shows how large-scale international air quality events relate to daily Air Quality Index data.” During the 2013 International Space Apps Challenge alone, over 770 prototypes were developed in a forty-eight hour period.

While the Cold War dictated that American ingenuity and scientific achievement needed to be the driving force behind landing a man on the moon during the 1960s, space exploration in the Twenty First Century faces a different set of challenges, including financial considerations, and the necessity for a larger cross-section of the populace to truly utilize the “best and the brightest” amongst us. “The exploration of space is, by necessity, a unified international effort, and diversity of experience and perspective inevitably produces a better product,” the NASA International Space Apps Challenge website states. “The idea of a Challenge is so compelling because it acknowledges the fact that the world is facing serious challenges and that we all have to work together to approach them.”

In many ways, the mission of the International Space Apps Challenge echoes the words spoken by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, albeit with a broader international connotation. “Now it is time to take longer strides,” Kennedy said. “Time for a great new American enterprise, time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement—which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.” Over fifty years later, the challenge that John F. Kennedy laid at the feet of Congress and the American people has been taken up by the greater world-at-large, including residents of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Anthony Letizia (April 9, 2014)

Follow Geek Pittsburgh: Facebook - Twitter - RSS Feed