Due to the closure of the space shuttle program and NASA's budget cuts, space enthusiasts haven’t heard much good news lately. As NASA refocuses and private research projects emerge, Spacehack.org is a promising way for citizen scientists to contribute to the brave new world of space exploration. Founded by former NASA contractor Ariel Waldman and developer Ben Ward, Spacehack is an online directory of open source and “participatory exploration” projects that enable people without a dedicated science background make a real contribution to research projects. Waldman navigates the maze of NASA websites and private enterprise projects to curate an accessible entry point to the most compelling projects. I spoke with Waldman about citizen science, how watching Discovery Channel documentaries can get you a job at NASA, and organizing San Francisco’s Science Hack Day, the second of which is coming in November.
How did Spacehack come about?
When I left NASA, I created Spacehack because I had heard about all of the different ways that people could actively contribute to space exploration despite not having a formal science background. I wanted to enable people to have the same experience that I did and have the awakening that you could contribute to space exploration even if you didn’t specifically study for it in school. I wanted to create a really easy directory of what people could participate in.
Another reason was that a lot of these projects were on really outdated NASA government websites or they weren’t really written that well, so I wanted to make projects that were very clear and concise, so people could understand how they could contribute. I wanted to make it a lot more accessible for people who don’t already work in the space exploration industry.
Photo of Ariel Waldman by Matt Nuzzaco, nuzz.org.
What was your background prior going to NASA?
My degree is in graphic design, and I had been a print graphic designer for a little while. I was working at an ad agency for about eight years. Then I switched into doing more digital anthropology work, so I was doing a lot of work around studying people’s behaviors and conversations online for a variety of clients.
What did you work on at NASA?
I was program coordinator for a program called CoLab. CoLab’s mission was to connect communities inside and outside of NASA. That meant a variety of things — having amateur astronomers collaborate with scientists at NASA to get better data, and consulting with missions inside of NASA who wanted to have their stuff open-sourced or wanted to know better ways they could engage people outside of NASA. We also did a lot of outreach to startup and hacker communities, trying to get people aware that NASA is in all of these unexpected places.
What sort of background do you need to get involved in Spacehack projects?
The projects on Spacehack range from ones that anyone without any background can get involved in — projects like GalaxyZoo are a perfect example of that — and there are others like the Google Lunar X prize and robotics projects in which an engineering background helps.
GalaxyZoo did a survey of their users and they asked what was the most related scientific activity these people did outside of GalaxyZoo. 80-85% of the people answered that they just watched shows on the Discovery Channel and Science Channel. I find that very powerful, because my story was that I was watching a documentary on NASA and I decided to email them on a whim. That’s what got me the job.
Photo via GalaxyZoo.
With NASA’s budget cuts and the reduced scope of its missions, do you see projects like Spacehack and open science being able to complement NASA’s research and fill in some of the gaps?
It’s an interesting time, because I’m really excited about what’s happening and I see it as more of a beginning of an era than the end of one. It’s due time that NASA no longer has a monopoly on space exploration. Just because you’re not doing something involved with NASA doesn’t mean that you’re not also equally contributing to space exploration. That’s a very positive thing for the open science movement.
On the other hand, it is a little bit scary that NASA is more vulnerable for budget cuts because mainstream media spins it as “well, NASA is no longer used as a diplomacy tool, they’re just doing scientific research, and who wants to fund that?” That’s obviously a very negative effect — the overall promotion of the idea that scientific research deserves less funding. But that’s an argument that’s pretty old — it’s not anything new.
It’s going to be a little bit tumultuous right now as you have an exodus of a lot of people who are working in space exploration, and they don’t have anywhere to go yet. But I think if you give it a few years, it’s going to get better, because you’re going to have a lot of jobs opening at places like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. For the people who want to work in the space industry, I think there are going to be more opportunities for them over time.
For people who don’t work in space exploration but want to actively get involved, I think we are seeing the very beginning stages of a citizen science renaissance as people realize that they can actively contribute. Citizen science is something where you can direct your own interest and research. You’re not just doing work on behalf of another scientist who’s going to end up taking credit for it.
Are there any examples that come to mind of this citizen science data feeding back into the research and NASA’s own projects?
Sure. Planet Hunters is using Kepler data to prove that humans can find some planets that the current algorithms won’t be able to. As people are discovering planets through the Planet Hunters data set, then the people who are running the project take that data back to the Kepler scientists and do a cross-check of what has already been discovered by the algorithms. In that case, you have a humans vs. machines competition — it’s not trying to replace algorithms, but it’s trying to augment our scientific discovery with humans who are able to go through all that data.
Could you tell me about the Science Hack Days you're organizing?
Science Hack Day is an event that started in London in June, 2010. I brought it to San Francisco in November of last year. It’s essentially a 48-hour all-night event where people from all different backgrounds — developers, designers, scientists, and just anyone who’s enthusiastic about hacking on science — come together in the same physical space to see what they can build in one weekend. It runs the gamut — if someone wants to make a lamp that lights up every time an asteroid flies by, that’s just as awesome as someone trying to create an augmented diagnostic tool for an accelerator laboratory.
At the San Francisco event, we had about 100 people, and the breakdown was 33% developers, 20% scientists, 20% designers and the rest were a mixed bag — anything from a roboticist to a marketer to a community manager. We had a 33% female turnout, which was pretty decent given that hack days are typically mostly white male developers in their 20’s and 30’s. Science Hack Day is trying to make an effort to show that different types of people can hack. You don’t necessarily have to be a developer in order to create something awesome. It’s more about the collaboration of all these people from different backgrounds.
For more information, visit Spacehack and Science Hack Day. Directions to start a Science Hack Day in your own city are available online, and the organizers are offering ten grants to people who want to start their own Science Hack Day to attend the upcoming event in San Francisco in November.