Cover image credit: NASA on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Going to a hackathon? Bring a designer with you.
The Space Apps Challenge is not the only space-themed hackathon out there, but is no doubt the most famous one. Organized and led by NASA, it aims to raise awareness about current issues in space and on Earth by asking participants to build workable web-based tools and applications from scratch. It is one of the biggest international hackathons in the world, each year attracting thousands of people in more than 100 different countries.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about this hackathon is that, although it has always focused primarily on new technology development, the event became a “broad church”. Even though its first editions might have seen primarily developers (who were also die-hard space fans), the Space Apps Challenge has become well-liked and well-known far beyond the realm of space tech.
The 2015 edition focused on robotics, making, and programming. However, the one that followed discarded these traditional categories. Instead, NASA put “citizen teamwork” first, calling not only for coders and developers, but also—for designers, scientists, educators, entrepreneurs, and storytellers. It’s hard to disentangle the cause from the effect. Did our space ambitions get so complex that we finally acknowledged a multi-disciplinary conversation? Or was it the other way around—because people with different skill-sets wanted to be part of the space tech community, the challenges had to be adapted accordingly? Either way, a new trend is settling in. It is powered by a new generation of creators who will not bow to the industry’s penchant for hard science.
This year, the Space Apps participants were able to select a challenge in one of the six themes outlined by NASA: Technology, Aeronautics, Space Station, Solar System, Earth, and Journey to Mars. They could choose to develop a new indoor game, using virtual reality to help astronauts stay fit and creatively pass free time during space missions (which seems like an easy challenge, until you take into account microgravity and limited free space on the ISS); build an app that would predict the impact of weather conditions on flight delays for civil aviation; or develop a virtual reality experience that would allow anyone to experience a rocket launch as if they were observing it in real life. Should the list of available challenges not be enough, participants might as well come forward with a project of their own.
However, what made this year remarkable is that it was the first time NASA truly shined the spotlight on the role of design in the space industry. Finally, space fashion was given its own dedicated challenge, encouraging participants to experiment with wearables and fabrics to create better clothes and accessories for space (and earth) wear. Furthermore, hackers could opt to design and demonstrate an actual jet pack that would facilitate traveling to Mars; design a rocket; or model a more effective packaging for key mission components, e.g. parachutes and solar sails, in a way that would minimize the use of space on the aircraft (a challenge that was called #SpaceOrigami because it required using different folding and self-assembling techniques that remind one of the ancient Japanese art). This prompted the birth of a completely new caste of participants—the “soft-skill hackers”—and sent a powerful, timely message: there’s a niche for everyone in space tech. It’s not meant exclusively for the formula-scribbling math geniuses (although those are needed too), and it’s definitely not “only for coders.”
The Dutch edition of the Space Apps Challenge 2016 was hosted by the Business Incubator Center of the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, with some 50 people arriving there on the Saturday morning of April 23rd. On a regular day, ESA BIC is one of the leading Dutch business incubators, helping young startups commercialize space technology (check out their alumni). It organizes frequent community events to promote space to youth and business circles, and spurs a broader implementation of space know-how on Earth. It hosts up to four hackathons a year on average, with another one coming up in May 2016.
Back in 2014, only one designer signed up for the Space Apps Challenge held there. Fast-forward to 2016, and you see four times as many designers as developers. Graphic, interface, product, and fashion designers made up a solid half of all participants in Noordwijk this year. Not only did they show up, but they also presented solutions that were relevant, operational, and attention-grabbing.
The team that won the Space Apps Challenge 2016 in Noordwijk consisted of students majoring in Arts, Media, and Design. Their idea of a ‘space toilet’ for the ISS, which centered around the clever use of wearable sensors, made a clean sweep. Most importantly, they didn’t need to write a single line of code for that. Talking to NRG Magazine after the award ceremony, they commented: “We were not expecting this at all. We were thinking of maybe getting the Public’s Choice award at best, because what we were doing was something very different, something funny. Some people openly advised us to mix up with the developers here and work on something more technical.”
It would be wrong to suggest that designers and people with other non-technical skills are pushing out the original strata of developers, coders, and engineers typically found at such events. Take, for example, Rick and Hans (who kindly agreed to talk to NRG Magazine at the venue). The guys are software developers, creating mobile applications for a living at one of the world’s biggest technology and consulting companies. With six other colleagues, they formed a team to participate in the Space Apps Challenge together. To them, spending a weekend working on a new app for the aeronautics industry is a way to disconnect from work and unleash their creativity. “One of the downsides of working for a big company is that you are pretty limited in what you get to work on, and you are often just another cog in the big system, doing what you are told to do. Most of my colleagues like to get away from that and work on something that’s really interesting and fun during the weekend,” said Hans. “We go to hackathons to try out the newest stuff. Space Apps Challenge was great for us—we wanted to try out our new Pi cluster, and that totally worked.” For the past day and night, his team has been developing an app that would enable private drone operators to know about the no-fly zones in their immediate vicinity (“Don’t Crash my Drone“); for this solution the team used a Raspberry Pi cluster that one of the members built in his free time. But it’s telling that they, too, brought their own designer with them.
And then, there’s Wendy Mensink. A young and talented Dutch graphic designer, she is a vivid personification of the convergence that is happening at the intersection of space tech and design. You might have seen the stamps she created for PostNL in 2014. That was the same year she joined a space hackathon for the first time (NASA’s Space Apps 2014), despite being unsure about her possible contribution to the process. “I wrote to the organizers, doubting whether a designer could participate at all. It turned out that I was wrong.” As the only designer available at that event, she had to split between five different teams, helping them all to finalize their projects. Already in 2014, design skills turned out to be in great demand at what was primarily seen as a tech hackathon. But what really made her join in the first place was not her passion for design per se, but her passion for design and space alike.
“When I was little, my parents took me the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and I was absolutely thrilled—I wanted to fly a rocket!” She smiles. “I’ve had a passion for space since I was eight, and that passion drove me. Even though later I studied Arts and could make a career as another Dutch graphic designer, I knew I would only be truly happy if I did something space-related. In 2014, I just graduated and decided to start moving in that direction.”
The next year, she took part in the ESA Appathon 2015, also held in Noordwijk. Without a single programmer, her team not only won the competition, but also evolved into a self-standing startup and an ESA BIC incubatee called Viridian Raven. In 2016, she got involved in NASA’s Space Apps Challenge again, only this time as a volunteer for the organisational team (she also designed the logo and other promotional materials for this event). She says: “I see it all from a different perspective now. At hackathons, people tend to underestimate soft skills a lot, and I don’t really know why. Naturally, coders focus on coding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it won’t hurt to have a dedicated design person in your team.”
She continues: “I think that space design is not yet a field of its own. There are not so many people who are doing what I am doing right now. So, design doesn’t have a spot in space just yet, but it’s definitely coming. I can see that because I am getting more and more tasks from the space field, and to some people in that domain it’s just eye-opening what a dedicated designer might mean for the success of their project.”
If Wendy is right, perhaps the space industry needs soft skills more than it sometimes admits. But there’s nothing to worry about. If people showing up at the Space Apps Challenge are any indication, we will have enough of the most versatile human talent to meet our most ambitious space goals.