Building the future at Space Apps NYC

By Tereza Nemessanyi, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Microsoft

Seeing the Earth from space makes you realize how interconnected we are, says Astronaut Ron Garan. Most people will never get to look out a window on the International Space Station like he did. But for those of us that made it to Space Apps NYC, the experience seemed a little closer.

This past weekend, Microsoft was honored to host Space Apps NYC, the main stage of the International Space Apps Challenge, at our Times Square Headquarters. The Space Apps Challenge is NASA’s global hackathon – and also, the world’s largest hackathon.

The mission of Space Apps is much bigger than just creating innovative technology; it’s about creating innovators. As keynote speaker Astronaut Cady Coleman put it in her opening remarks, “People’s lives will change here.”

At its essence, Space Apps NYC brought people together and challenged them to think big. Whether by collaborating in the hackathon or meeting astronauts and world-class scientists in real life, Space Apps NYC particpants of all ages were able to grow and stretch their minds.

“Orbital” perspectives and beyond

Astronauts, space-tech entrepreneurs and NASA scientists took to the stage throughout the two-day event, discussing a broad range of topics: life aboard the International Space Station, the power of data to solve global food crises, and innovative space technologies like “OnSight,” the ground-breaking tool which will virtually immerse NASA scientists on Mars as early as July 2015 – powered by Microsoft’s augmented reality platform, Hololens.

“We wanted to be on the bleeding edge,” said Victor Luo, NASA’s lead on the “OnSight” collaboration. “And the way to do this is by embracing commercial technology and partnerships, like our partnership with Microsoft.”

Don’t let the word “lectures” fool you – the Space Apps NYC speaker series was, at its core, about inspiration, geeky fun, and giving citizen hackers the tools to create the next big thing. Think selfies with astronauts, DIY robotic arms, and kittens with laser vision. Many presenters shared that the inspiration was a two way street. For example, Coleman, who helped lead the Women and Data Boot Camp, was amazed by the confidence in the camp’s young women after less than a day of mentorship.

The Women and Data Boot Camp was a prime example of the inclusive, engaging environment at Space Apps NYC. For some, such as Niki Selken, a design professional and two-year Space Apps vet, Space Apps NYC created a space for her to feel comfortable and try things she otherwise wouldn’t. “Speaking with Cady [Coleman] gave me a ton of confidence,” Selken said. “In turn, I passed that confidence on to many young women who ended up joining the hackathon.”

NASA Astronaut Cady Coleman speaking with Space Apps hackers. [Photo: Amanda Ghanooni]
NASA Astronaut Cady Coleman speaking with Space Apps hackers. [Photo: Amanda Ghanooni]
For others, it was the level of diversity that set the event apart.

“Compared to all the hackathons I’ve been to, the gender balance here is amazing,” said Mindy Nam of Team Space Sloth. “It’s as diverse as it gets—age range, nationalities, and backgrounds. It’s cool to have people bring different skills sets, everything from design to hardware, and see it all come together.”

Games and attractions added to the excitement of the weekend — and served as an oasis for recharging hackers. Microsoft’s NYC-based Technical Evangelists, Stacey Mulcahy and Maria Naggaga, developed a Raspberry PI-powered galactic photo booth for participants to capture their experiences at the event, and Technical Evangelist Jason Walters created “Horizon,” a Kinect-enabled space exploration game. (For developers looking for Kinect support, Walters also writes a helpful blog.)

The hackathon demos

The positive energy and brainpower reached a crescendo at the Hackathon Demos. Twenty-five teams presented at Space Apps NYC, while hundreds more did the same at 136 locations across the globe. The NYC demos tackled challenges ranging from: designing a drone for the Martian atmosphere, making outer space education interesting, wildfire safety, tracking asteroid collisions and safely testing the atmosphere for contaminants.

It goes without saying that every demo was impressive. But a few of the standout teams of the event were First Hand, who produced a sensory, temperature regulating space glove, Space Tags NY, who tagged over 26,000 NASA databases (slightly above the goal of 72), and eMeteAidor, who built a meteorite-impact first responders application built on Microsoft Azure.

The creativity and enthusiasm of the hackers were a powerful reminder of why we sponsored and hosted Space Apps NYC. We wanted to make our tools and resources available so inspired people could innovate the best solutions possible. In the words of Matt Thompson, Microsoft’s General Manager, Developer Experience and Evangelism, “Microsoft is here because we fundamentally believe in the process ideation and innovation – whether in space science, computer science, or applied science.”

It’s for these same reasons that we created our BizSpark program, which provides tens of thousands of dollars worth of free Azure cloud services to startups that qualify.

In the final demo of the weekend, Microsoft NYC’s own evangelist hackers, Team Commander Kittens, wowed the crowd with Azure-powered performance art: a multi-sensory, whole-body interactive mashup of NASA space photos, an historical audio recording of LBJ and Buzz Aldren, and Kinect motion-sensors to augment and automate the words in text. The net result – hard to describe, and impossible to forget.

Team Commander Kittens
Team Commander Kittens

The future of scientific exploration

While many of the hackathon projects may evolve into full-fledged products and have a profound impact on NASA and space travel, the real discovery of the weekend landed on a higher plane. Participants were reminded of the importance of shared responsibility for the future of the Earth and humankind.

“Hackathons evolved as a way of sharing solutions, building on the knowledge of others, and a deep desire to make the world a better place,” said Thompson.

Space Apps NYC was nothing less than a showcase for the future of scientific exploration, and just what does it look like? The future is inclusive, with men and women of all ages, cultures, professions and ethnicities working together. The future is united by a shared sense of responsibility for our global family. And the future is bright.

We’re looking forward to future – and next year’s Space Apps – and we’ll be supporting innovation and growth every step of the way. If you are a startup that would like to be part of this, check out our BizSpark program today. Download the tools, grab a NASA dataset or two – and get hacking!

Posted by Jennifer Chen
Microsoft News Center Staff