From left, Winona State University students Donovan Plumlee, Alissa Teigland, and Lex Lea programmed a video game that uses NASA satellite imagery during last weekend’s Space Apps event.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Sure — your childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut aren’t panning out. But that doesn’t mean you can’t play a small part in exploring the universe.
That is the idea behind Space Apps, NASA’s worldwide hackathon. In a weekend-long brainstorming and problem-solving frenzy, thousands of people from across the globe try their hand at NASA challenges that range from the artistic to the technical. Last year, a Spanish team developed a video game that enlists players in categorizing the oodles of images of distant galaxies the Hubble Space Telescope takes every day, while a Canadian squad created a program that translates NASA’s satellite imagery into beautiful music.
Last weekend, hundreds of teams in Bangalore, Cairo, São Paulo, and Dublin raced to invent solutions to this year’s challenges. Winona State University (WSU) represented the North Star State with the only Space Apps location in Minnesota.
Space Apps is not just for programmers and engineers. Tucked away in a room at the Darrel W. Krueger Library, a team of Winona creatives tackled a challenge “to create an artistic work to communicate, inform, or inspire others about humanity’s return to the moon.” Instead of a hackathon, they dubbed Space Apps an “idea jam” and turned to WSU professor and planetary geologist Jennifer Anderson for some inspiration.
“I think why haven’t we been back?” Anderson said when asked by the team if she thought humans should return to the moon. “It’s right next door. It’s only three days away. It’s like why haven’t I been back to Rochester to eat Indian food again?” Compared to the journey to Mars, three days is nothing.
Anderson recalled the story of “Earthrise,” the iconic photograph of Earth taken from space by astronauts circling the moon on the Apollo 8 mission. The photograph would go on to change how humans see their planet and symbolize Earth’s fragility, but at the time, the astronauts had been given a very specific list of features on the surface of the moon to photograph. Taking a photo of the Earth wasn’t part of that protocol, but the astronauts recognized the significance of the scene and took a photo anyway. “This is the argument for having humans, not robots,” Anderson said. “This is what a human can do, is put things in context,” she added.
As her team warmed up to the challenge of putting humanity’s return to the moon in context, Winona dancer Sharon Mansur sketched on a sprawling sheet of newsprint and talked about how the lack of color on the moon reminded her of black and white photographs and human memory. She mused on the scarred, pitted, and veined surface of the moon “The moon as a body and the human body — something there might percolate into an idea,” Mansur said.
Teammate and English professor Gretchen Michlitsch started jotting out lyrics for a song about a journey to the moon. To the tune of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme, she sang, “Just three days away,” instead of, “A three-hour tour.”
“I’m a writer so usually I’m creating in a room by myself,” teammate Elle Newman said. Collaborating with others on a limited time frame — “This is my version of an adrenaline rush,” she joked. “At some point, someone is going to ask me what I’ve been working on, and it’s not going to be anywhere near what I would consider ready to share.” But that is the nature of the event. Participants have just a couple days to come up something.
Next door, a team of WSU students were past the initial brainstorming and deep into the creation of their project. They chose NASA’s challenge “to create a new video game that uses NASA Earth data” and developed a memory game in which players must select tiles with matching satellite images of the Earth.
Team member Lex Lea is a computer science major and the president of WSU’s astronomy club. “I really like this event because it combines both things I love,” she said.
Lea and other computer science majors on the team created the game using a Java-based programming system. Alissa Teigland floated a new idea to her team — “Would that mess up anything else?” — while Lea pulled up a database of satellite images to populate the game tiles. Non-coders on their team tested out the game and suggested other ideas.
“Starting out is the hardest part — figuring out what you want to do and how to do it,” Teigland said.
“Because once you start, you have a direction,” Lea added.
By the end of the weekend, the students had a game that could accommodate one or two players, pulled new images from NASA’s massive database for each game, and shared information about those images at the end of the game. The game tiles turn progressively darker colors with each incorrect guess. “To shame you,” team member Donovan Plumlee explained.
In between bites of pizza, the team churned out a fully functional video game in a couple days, but the mood was pretty light. The students dubbed themselves team “MinimalEffort-ish,” and among a list of ardent-looking teams from Europe, Africa, and Asia on the Space Apps website, their team profile picture was an awkward stock photo of an old man with a weird smile.
Turns out it is possible to have fun and learn real skills at the same time. “They built an application. They had people test it. They then made modifications to it, and then went through pretty much the whole application to make it two-player, which is like the iterative software development that we’re teaching these students in high-level classes,” WSU Computer Science Lab Director and Space Apps host Eric Wright said of the students. Most of MinimalEffort-ish’s members were underclassmen. “They haven’t been taught to use this process, they just kind of wandered into it automatically,” Wright explained.
“There were some times where [the game] was working how I coded it, but I didn’t think things through enough,” Teigland explained.
“Thinking things through first definitely helped,” Plumlee said.
“With a project like this, you have to do it in parts,” Lea stated. “Get one part to work and then you can add to it.”
Two heads are better than one, and Space Apps gets all different kinds of people from all over the world to work together on challenges.
“What I think is really cool and exciting is that a lot of people who don’t normally get to work together get pulled into the same space to be available for each other,” Wright said. “People kind of stretch their ability.”
Winona teams were among hundreds that submitted their projects last Sunday evening. The projects that impress judges the most are awarded honors and NASA has actually implemented some of the ideas developed in Space Apps, but the agency says the event’s main goal is to educate people, foster enthusiasm for space, and nurture the next generation of problem solvers.