Changing the world in 48 hours: the NASA International Space Apps Challenge

Sciences provide an understanding of a universal experience, Arts are a universal understanding of a personal experience… they are both a part of us and a manifestation of the same thing… the arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.’ – Mae Jemison

Unfortunately for you, if you follow me on any social media or were present in my life for the Great Sleep Deprivation Saga of Monday 22nd October (a 24 hour hackathon is not great for those of us who do not function well without sleep), you’ll have already heard all about the NASA International Space Apps Challenge. If you haven’t had the pleasure of receiving my enthusiastic explanation of this fantastic event yet, today is your lucky day!

So, what is it?

The 7th Annual NASA Space Apps Challenge is an international hackathon that occurs over 48 hours in hundreds of cities around the world, taking place this year on the weekend of 19th-21st October. Hackathons, despite their name, have nothing to do with what we think of as hacking – that is, working out somebody’s password for all manner of horrors. Hacking is technology development, and hackathons are just marathon versions of this, often taking place over a full 24 or 48 hour period. They’re not just limited to computer people either, although you’ll definitely find a lot of them, it’s open to anybody who wants to use their skills, talents and initiative to develop solutions to real problems. Computer programmers, engineers, designers, artists, scientists, makers, builders, storytellers, public speakers, students – if you’ve got the desire to work together to create exciting solutions, have a little bit of curiosity and enthusiasm for solving the challenges we face not just on Earth, but in space too, you’ll be right at home.

Every year, NASA design a set of challenges, sorted into topics, and then people from all over the world volunteer as local leads to provide a location for people to come together and create innovative solutions to these challenges. This giant mashup of NASA data with a global community of problem solvers is growing in popularity every year, with 2017 having a whopping 25,000+ participants in 187 events, all spread over six continents.

Despite the name, it’s not all about apps either – this year saw challenges calling for a game to be made with images from the Hubble Space Telescope, a challenge to design a free-flying spacecraft inspired by nature that inspects spacecrafts for damage, a documentary of the whole Space Apps experience, a quest-like game to illustrate changes to polar environments and even a virtual reality experience to help people explore space.

The Story of Valiant

Two years ago, I’d never even heard of Space Apps, until my best friend mentioned that he was doing this cool space thing and there were some Earthy type challenges that reminded him of me. He sent me the link to the challenges and I was instantly enthralled – there were biology things that I knew about! A real life application for my degree! I joined his team and travelled to the Met Office in Exeter, where our team went on to develop a solution for the ‘Migratory Travels and Travel Stories’ challenge – we developed TrackWild – a community-based tool that allows users to track, identify and conserve migratory species in their area. To my absolute ecstatic joy and excitement, we even won the Local People’s Choice Award! Of course this meant I had the Hackathon bug and would spend roughly 8 minutes a day pestering the local sponsor and lead supporter, TechExeter, for details of the next year’s event.

Even though I’m not from Exeter, when the dates for this year were finally announced, myself and my best friend signed up to return to the Met Office once again. We did this because not only is it a fantastic venue with excellent facilities, but we made so many friends with the volunteers and participants and were welcomed so warmly by the community that we didn’t even consider going anywhere else. This year though, we knew we wanted to stray from the web apps side of things (I’m going to say it’s because we wanted to do a cool game, but it’s largely because I have limited tech skills and being proficient in PowerPoint can only get you so far) and so we delved into the world of virtual reality, choosing to solve the ‘Virtual Space Exploration‘ challenge. Team Valiant was created, standing for Virtual Assisted Learning Incorporating Advanced New Technologies, and we got to work.



In the 24 hours we had available to us (of which none was spent sleeping, I promise), we worked through the night to produce Valiant, an immersive virtual reality experience that we created to help showcase the future of lunar exploration and habitation.

Virtual reality has already been used to bring the surfaces of the Moon and Mars into our homes, showing us landers, rovers and fascinating landscapes. We wanted to explore the future of our presence in the solar system – we wanted to immerse the player in their own lunar expedition. With NASA and SpaceX ideas for lunar habitation inspiring us, we decided to show the journey an Explorer would take from arrival on the Moon, exploration of the landscape, right down to the descent into a skylight and into the depths of a lava-formed cavern. Using NASA 3D models, we implemented tasters of the possibilities of lunar habitation – transport, science and even homes, all explained through a futuristic user interface attached to the virtual hand. I don’t mean to brag, but it is incredibly cool.

To demonstrate this virtual reality experience we decided to make use of mixed reality, through use of a green screen and a camera, meaning others can see the Explorer as they travel throughout the environment. This in turn presented a number of challenges: working with only a basic camera and lighting setup meant we experienced difficulties producing an effective mixed reality result, and as we only had one computer, virtual reality headset and camera set up, a lot of the work could only be completed from that one computer. However, despite the limited time and various difficulties, we completed a fully playable demonstration, ready to present to the judges and the rest of the participants.








It turns out, the judges loved our little project, and so did everybody that stopped by to help us test it. Given the fantastic quality of every single project there, we’d definitely not expected this result, but we are SO excited to be able to take this to the next round. We were also ecstatic to share the glory with the first incredible winning project – Interplanetary Cephalopod Assistant: ICA – who produced a solution for the ‘Inspired by Nature’ category and blew everybody away with their innovative design. #teamsquid have their project page up now too – they’re definitely worth checking out!

What happens next?

We’ve now been listed as a local winner in our category online, and have prepared our project page! Every winner has to prepare a 30 second pitch that is judged by NASA experts – you can view ours here! The experts will then review these nominations to select the top 30 projects worldwide. The winners of that round will then be displayed on the Space Apps website and will even receive an invite to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, with the Space Apps Global Organising team!



Our entire team is so excited about the future of this project, but most of all, we’re super duper grateful to everybody that helped make it possible.

I’d like to thank:
Kris and the team at Tech Exeter, for their astounding dedication to this event and patient toleration of my excitable nature,
The Met Office, for an inspiring location and the most welcoming staff,
DesignSpark, for the support, enthusiasm and constant belief in our work,
The judging team, for seeing potential in us and such lovely feedback,

and most importantly, the #spaceappsexeter community – year after year, I’m constantly amazed by the wonderful variety of participants and the brilliant projects that I feel honoured to have seen developed. I’ve made so many friends and learnt so many new things from this wonderful slow cooker of brilliant people – even down to all sharing retinal injuries from Kris’s insistence that we look directly into the sun for our team photo. <3

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