Recap: Space App Challenge at NASA Glenn

On an average day, Brian Gesler works as a computer programmer at a Cleveland insurance company. But for one weekend last month, he was busy creating jet packs that could one day be used by astronauts on Mars.
He crowded around tables in a conference room at NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center campus with a team he’d just met. Some sketched prototypes across sheets hung on the walls, others pecked away frantically on laptops. They called themselves Moon Tang Clan.
Gesler and his team were one of 17 groups in Cleveland that took part in the 2016 International Space Apps Challenge. Since 2012, the hackathon has brought together coders, artists, and general tinkerers to use open data provided by NASA to spark solutions to many of the aeronautics and space agency’s most pressing hurdles. The event now spreads across 161 locations around the globe.
“Other hackathons are hyper-local, but with this, you’re part of a global effort,” says Gesler.
The program is part of openNASA, an initiative to share NASA’s own data, code and APIs with the public in effort to foster transparency and collaboration. The idea is: NASA provides the knowledge of their experts, their data and their resources (3D printers and virtual reality systems, to name a few) and the more than 15,300 participants around the world endeavor to help the organization see things from a different perspective – if only for one weekend.
In the past, participants have produced mobile apps, software, hardware and data visualizations, among other creations. Some of the works have gone on to be implemented by NASA or garnered venture capital to get off the ground.
In 2013, former NASA Glenn chief information officer Sasi Pillay approached Brad Nellis, who was the executive director of OHTec at the time, about organizing Space Apps in Cleveland. Nellis added the program to Tech Week and from 2013 to 2014, the program was held at Cuyahoga Community College’s Advanced Technology Training Center. Last year, NASA officially brought the program home, making NASA Glenn the only host of a Space Apps Challenge among the organization's 10 facilities across the United States.
“This event offers a great opportunity for local tech folks to unleash their creativity and ingenuity for a great cause,” said Nellis. “Being here at NASA Glenn adds a unique and exciting dimension to the hackathon, fellow space geeks love it here.”
Herbert Schilling, a NASA computer scientist who works on the scientific applications and visualization team and is now a Space Apps organizer, remembers coming to NASA in high school as part of an outreach program. Now that he’s an employee, he says it’s his turn to give back.
“I run into NASA fans all the time and I like offering them an opportunity to cultivate that love even more,” Schilling says. “I love learning from them. I’m inspired by the things they come up with.”
Organizer Sarah Dutkiewicz, President of Cleveland Tech Consulting, was instrumental in bringing new participants on board. Dutkiewicz utilized different social media channels to connect with an array of user groups in the region and also reached out to the growing number of coding boot camps in Cleveland, many of which are designed to bring more women and minorities into the field.
“I’m a space geek; Sally Ride was always one of my idols,” she says enthusiastically. “To be here seeing all different walks of life working with NASA, I’m beyond thrilled.”
Mission Control
As the sounds of the NASA Glenn band, an employee brass ensemble, filled the auditorium on Friday night, participants passed through security and filed into the building. This year was the first that youth were able to take part in the hackathon, and plenty circled the room with school backpacks.
Sean Gallagher, current Chief Information Officer of NASA Glenn Research Center and David L. Stringer, Director of the Plum Brook Management Office offered opening remarks.
“Once a year, we get a chance to step back, open up the treasure trove of NASA data you’ll get to access over the weekend, and ask you to solve some of our bigger problems,” said Gallagher.
Stringer spoke on understanding each team member’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Know your job, work together and have no surprises,” he said. “Degrees don’t measure the human being – smarts, persistence and the willingness to co-operate does. Be curious, learn as much as you can and talk to as many people as possible.”
Teams were introduced to this year’s challenges, which included space fashion and design, aeronautics, biomimicry, missions to Mars and even ideas to improve the planet. The challenge concepts were collected by NASA and then handed over to organizers like Stacey Brooks, NASA’s Open Government Datanaut Community Manager, who gathered data from their own archives and the web to give participants enough information to get started.
“We get volumes and volumes of data from all the space craft we have,” says Brooks. “But I will look at that data in one way and you might look at it in another way. And if everyone has an opportunity to view it through their own lens, we’ll get a lot more research out of it. The more we all collaborate together, the more interesting our solutions will be.”
Of course, often times that information is only a stepping stone. The hackathon also brings in subject matter experts that teams can consult. Jay Horowitz, who retired four years ago from the graphics and visualization department, has been helping teams who come to him with questions on topics such as virtual reality.
When they ask about using the VR technology for a mission to Mars or to control a rover, he fills them in on ways NASA has already used it in the past. For example, the Elon Muskateers team created a camera with light field photography capabilities that could be attached to rovers to create more 3D images.
His best advice? Think beyond today’s tools.
“I’ve been encouraging them to not think of today’s cameras,” he says. “Cameras ten years from now are going to be radically different. A large part of that was just encouraging them to think outside of the box. Any time NASA tries to design something, we have to be prepared for everything to change a few years from now.”
To Infinity and Beyond
On Sunday afternoon, Gesler and the rest of Moon Tang Clan took the stage to present a battery-powered exoskeleton with jet turbine generators. Imagine a wearable machine that could reduce strain on astronauts as they traverse Mars, help them lift heavy objects and enhance their stride to cover more ground. On the screen, they played a first-person simulation of the red terrain, which was created in Unity 3D using a topographical map of Mars freely available online.
The Moon Tang Clan took home first place.
Team Star-whals took second by developing a real mission to retrieve a near Earth asteroid for future mining.
“We didn’t just build the sensor package or the impactor,” says participant Brian Stofiel, who is also CEO of Stofiel Aerospace. “This was a mission. We went from the very beginning to retrieving. We really wanted to address the whole topic.”
People’s Choice winning team Dragonfly also focused on asteroids. The exploratory satellites they proposed, called “Dragonflies,” can be released in a cluster formation. In the middle of each is a javelin that opens like an umbrella six to 12 feet deep inside the asteroid. Each would contain sensors that could allow them to create effects, like 3D images.
The javelin’s inception was rooted in biomimicry, the practice of using nature as a model for design. Its inspiration? A porcupine’s quill, the prickly, arrow-shaped spines that easily penetrate predators but are difficult to remove once lodged. In this case, the javelin is the quill; the asteroid is the predator.
Another team, the hackathon’s local winner, created a prototype of a motor for an electric aircraft that could be made out of 80 percent 3D printed parts. The motor is flatter than usual, which would create higher power density and efficiency.
As much as many Space Apps teams focused on the possibilities of exploring the great unknown, other groups shared how NASA’s data can have an immediate effect on understanding our own planet. One created an app to self-diagnose allergies by finding correlations between pollution and NASA data. Another offers better communication between residents of pastoral areas by using NASA maps and weather data.
It’s a subtle reminder on the year of NASA Glenn’s 75th anniversary that the discoveries of space exploration continue to impact our everyday lives – from the solar panels we’re building on our homes for sustainable energy to the firefighter who pulls a breathing mask over his face before rushing into a fire to the enriched formula a parent trusts when feeding their newborn.
For one weekend a year, 15,310 extra hands help us see that the future isn’t really so far off.
As part of NASA Glenn’s 75th anniversary, it will host a free public open house at its Lewis Field main campus, 21000 Brookpark Rd. on May 21 and 22 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Read more articles by Nikki Delamotte.

Nikki Delamotte is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Diffuser.FM, The Grammys, Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene and others.