This is an image tak­en from one of my favorite space­craft, the Voyager I space­craft, that’s going to the out­er reach­es of our solar sys­tem and beyond. And if you can see that tiny lit­tle pale blue speck of a pix­el there, that’s Earth as seen from about four bil­lion miles away. So that’s where you can find me if you need me. But the rea­son why I real­ly love images like these is because it real­ly encap­su­lates how space explo­ration often changes our view of our­selves and our place in the uni­verse. But sim­i­lar­ly, I think we should change how we view space exploration.

The Earth seen from space, with the Moon's horizon visible

As an exam­ple, how many of you are famil­iar with this image? Raise your hands. A good num­ber of you. Great. Yeah, this is from Apollo 8.

Ariel Waldman Hacking Space Exploration 00 00 46

And how many of you are famil­iar with this image? A few more of you. Okay. This is one of the well-known images from Hubble tak­en in 1995 of the Eagle Nebula.

And what both of these images have in com­mon, obvi­ous­ly, is that a decent amount of us are fair­ly famil­iar with them. We’ve grown up see­ing them in var­i­ous places online and in schools. And we’ve kind of just seen them every­where. But that’s kind of all we’ve ever done with them, is just see them. We haven’t real­ly inter­act­ed with them, or tin­kered with them very much. 

And so when I talk about hack­ing space explo­ration, I’m real­ly talk­ing about hack­ing space obser­va­tion. Because that’s real­ly the rela­tion­ship that most of us have with space explo­ration, is real­ly just observ­ing gov­ern­ment agen­cies and astro­nauts explor­ing space on behalf of us. But we our­selves aren’t real­ly explor­ing that much. 

Several men wearing headsets seated at a control panel

So, some of the his­to­ry behind that. In 1969, we had a fair­ly his­tor­i­cal event. We sent a man to the moon. But also in 1969, we sent the first mes­sage over ARPANET, the ear­ly form of the Internet. That mes­sage was Lo” for login, and unfor­tu­nate­ly the com­put­er crashed short­ly there­after. But that said, with about forty years of hind­sight, which one of these events has had a greater impact? 

So, it’s 2011 and now the Internet has mil­lions and mil­lions, and actu­al­ly close to two bil­lion users. And yet with fifty years of space explo­ration behind us, only a lit­tle more than five hun­dred peo­ple have actu­al­ly ever been in space. This to me is incred­i­bly sad and bro­ken. Because when you look at all those images from NASA that you’ve grown up with, while they’re break­ing through sound bar­ri­ers, they’re not real­ly break­ing through much else. They’re not real­ly that open. 

Ariel Waldman Hacking Space Exploration 00 02 49

But what if space explo­ration were open? That’s a ques­tion that myself, the Institute for the Future, a great think tank here in Palo Alto, Jane McGonigal, a well-known game design­er… We ask that to a num­ber of peo­ple. We asked, What will you do when space is as cheap and acces­si­ble as the web is today?” So if you can imag­ine own­ing a cube satel­lite for around the price of an iPod, how would that change us? We asked peo­ple to fore­cast how it might change us pos­i­tive­ly and neg­a­tive­ly. And peo­ple talked about how it might change our envi­ron­ment, and how it might change our psychology.

Ariel Waldman Hacking Space Exploration 007

But one of the most impor­tant things that I thought peo­ple forecast[ed] was that they thought it would cre­ate a cit­i­zen sci­ence renais­sance. That sim­ply hav­ing access to space explo­ration, sim­i­lar like we do the Web, would actu­al­ly inspire peo­ple to active­ly con­tribute to it and actu­al­ly get involved in it. And this is because doing some­thing changes how you see it. So actu­al­ly doing sci­ence and doing space explo­ration, active­ly changes your rela­tion­ship with it from some­thing of obser­va­tion to some­thing you’re active­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in and active­ly con­tribut­ing to.

And this relates to my per­son­al sto­ry. Because back in 2008, I was watch­ing a great doc­u­men­tary that I rec­om­mend called When We Left Earth. It was a doc­u­men­tary about the Apollo mis­sions and about NASA over the last few decades. And I found this so incred­i­bly inspir­ing that I decid­ed I want­ed to work at NASA. But I had no idea if they need­ed some­one like me. I have no for­mal sci­ence back­ground what­so­ev­er. My degree is in graph­ic design. I’d been work­ing at VML, a WPP agency, for a num­ber of years. And so I real­ly didn’t know if they need­ed some­one like me.

But I sent them a shot in the dark sort of email say­ing that I was a huge fan of every­thing that they did, and if they ever need­ed a vol­un­teer or if they ever need­ed some­one to work part-time or any­thing, I was around. It was lit­tle fan­girl moment. And it was real­ly inter­est­ing, because serendip­i­tous­ly, I was able to get a job based off of that email at NASA.

And it was this incred­i­bly inspir­ing event. I got to learn from sci­en­tists about dark mat­ter and robots and… Working at NASA is like get­ting paid to go to school. It was a real­ly inspir­ing event. I got to learn so many things.

Photo of an astronaut standing on the Moon's surface, with a large crossed-through circle overlaid on the image

But one of the most impor­tant things I end­ed up learn­ing while I was at NASA was that I didn’t need to be an astro­naut in order to explore space. Not only did I end up learn­ing I didn’t need to be an astro­naut to explore space, but I end­ed up learn­ing I didn’t even need to work at NASA to explore space. 

Photo of Tron Guy in his Tron costume from the shoulders up, captioned "no more sci-fi!"

And so I left. And this is some­thing that a lot of peo­ple are real­iz­ing, is that like the Tron Guy who wants Tron to become a real­i­ty now, we want a space explo­ration to become a real­i­ty now. We don’t want to look like dorks for ask­ing for space explo­ration. It shouldn’t be sci­ence fic­tion, it should be a real­i­ty. You shouldn’t have to be one of the lucky few who works at NASA.

But how can space explo­ration also goes one step beyond the sort of Instructables, DIY cul­ture of doing some­thing just for your­self. It’s about say­ing, You know what? I have no idea how to build a robot, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that keep me from send­ing stuff into space.” 

Photo of two teddy bears in makeshift spacesuits floating above the Earth, captioned "f***ing teddy bears in space!"

And this isn’t Photoshop, this is a real image. Kids from the UK actu­al­ly built a sys­tem in which they can actu­al­ly launch their ted­dy bears into space. So, these were eleven and thir­teen year-old kids who who part­nered with the University of Cambridge to do this, and they actu­al­ly sent their ted­dy bears into space. they didn’t say you know, Well, I don’t know how to build a robot, so I guess I can’t launch any­thing.” They didn’t real­ly have any access barriers.

And so hack­ing sci­ence and space explo­ration isn’t just about get­ting excit­ed and mak­ing things. But it’s about get­ting excit­ed and mak­ing dis­rup­tive­ly acces­si­ble things. Things that real­ly dis­rupt the cur­rent state of sci­ence and a lot of the elit­ism around it, and tru­ly make it acces­si­ble for everyone.

And there’s a lot projects that are already doing this. One of which is the Google Lunar XPRIZE which is a thir­ty mil­lion dol­lar com­pe­ti­tion to build and send the robot to the moon. And the real­ly great thing about this is that it’s not gov­ern­ment agen­cies who are doing this. This is teams of indi­vid­u­als from around the world who are doing this. 

And it’s pret­ty excit­ing. Because if you can just imag­ine, just think for a moment, sev­en years before we land­ed a human on the moon, sev­en year time span, we were crash-landing robots there. So in sev­en years, we went from not even being able to suc­cess­ful­ly land a robot on the moon to land­ing humans there. As you can imag­ine with­in the next cou­ple of years these teams from around the world will be launch­ing their robots to the moon, it’s a pret­ty excit­ing decade for space exploration.

But if you think robots are kind of dumb, that’s okay. Robots are actu­al­ly fair­ly dumb still. There’s a lot of things that humans are good at robots kind of suck at. And with that in mind is a project called Galaxy Zoo. And Galaxy Zoo is essen­tial­ly an online inter­face in which peo­ple can go and clas­si­fy, and poten­tial­ly even dis­cov­er, new galax­ies that have nev­er been dis­cov­ered before. And Galaxy Zoo also solves an impor­tant data prob­lem. Because as tech­nol­o­gy advances, we’re able to take in more and more data, which is great, but it becomes hard­er for peo­ple to go through it on a human lev­el because robots still aren’t that great at it. But Galaxy Zoo solves this by hav­ing the sort of sim­plis­tic interface. 

Galaxy Zoo essen­tial­ly gives you an image of the galaxy, and it asks you some very basic ques­tions about it like, is it a spi­ral galaxy? Is it ellip­ti­cal? It asks you to clas­si­fy it. It’s fair­ly low learn­ing curve in order to a get involved in this, and it uses uses open data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and from Hubble.

But the impor­tant thing about Galaxy Zoo is that they don’t believe in using data mon­keys. So this isn’t some sort of Mechanical Turk oper­a­tion where you do work and some sci­en­tist takes the cred­it for it. The work you do on Galaxy Zoo actu­al­ly gets cred­it­ed to you. So, if you’re one of the peo­ple who dis­cov­ers a new galaxy, your name goes on the sci­en­tif­ic paper for it. So it’s pret­ty awesome.

And this actu­al­ly hap­pened in the case of the Green Peas galax­ies. These were galax­ies that were dis­cov­ered entire­ly by Galaxy Zoo mem­bers and it’s because Galaxy Zoo not only gives you that pret­ty pic­ture of an image, but it also allows you to dig into the data behind it. So if some­thing looks a lit­tle bit pecu­liar or odd, you can begin to inves­ti­gate it. And that’s actu­al­ly what hap­pened in the case of the Green Peas galax­ies, and pret­ty soon after you had peo­ple on the forums, some with sci­ence back­grounds and some with­out sci­ence back­grounds, col­lab­o­rat­ing to try and fig­ure out what these were. And they end­ed up find­ing one the most effi­cient star-forming galax­ies dis­cov­ered to date.

And if you’re feel­ing bad for the robots, don’t, because all of this human work leads to bet­ter machine learn­ing. So hope­ful­ly the robots can get a lit­tle bit bet­ter at doing this with­out over­tak­ing us. Hopefully.

So, if you’re intrigued about projects like these and ways in which you can active­ly con­tribute to space explo­ration, a lot of these prod­ucts can be found on space​hack​.org. And so you can find prod­ucts like Planet Hunters, in which you can try and dis­cov­ered new exo­plan­ets that’ve nev­er been dis­cov­ered before. Projects like the University Rover Challenge, in which you can build the next wave of Mars movers. Projects like Citizen Sky, where you can inves­ti­gate why a star gets eclipsed by a huge mys­te­ri­ous black object every so often. And projects like the TubeSat Kit, in which you can build and launch your own satel­lite for eight thou­sand dol­lars flat. So, all that’s on space​hack​.org, which is a direc­to­ry of ways to par­tic­i­pate in space explo­ration that I cre­at­ed when I left NASA.

But all these projects fol­low sort of these dif­fer­ent modes of invad­ing space. They’re all about open col­lab­o­ra­tion and dis­rup­tive acces­si­bil­i­ty. So, real­ly open­ing up the stage for peo­ple from all dif­fer­ent kinds of back­grounds, not just devel­op­ers, not just hard­ware hack­ers, not just design­ers, all dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple, com­ing togeth­er to col­lab­o­rate and real­ly push space explo­ration for­ward. And they’re also about active con­tri­bu­tion. So, these are projects not exact­ly like @-replying NASA on Twitter and hop­ing that they might lis­ten to you. These are things that you’re active­ly con­tribut­ing to sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery through. 

And one last point I want to spend a lit­tle bit of time on is the idea that open doesn’t mean acces­si­ble. And by open doesn’t mean acces­si­ble” I mean that there’s a lot of data already out there and open in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty. But it’s either buried deep in a gov­ern­ment web­site, or it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to under­stand. And so it’s not real­ly that acces­si­ble. If you think back to the Galaxy Zoo project, that data was already open and out there. But it wasn’t until some­one built an inter­face to it that it real­ly allowed hun­dreds of thou­sands of users to go through and be clas­si­fy­ing and dis­cov­er­ing galax­ies, which they are. 

So out of this frus­tra­tion that there’s a lot of open stuff out there but no one’s doing any­thing inter­est­ing with it came event called Science Hack Day. And Science Hack Day is essen­tial­ly an event that brings togeth­er design­ers, devel­op­ers, sci­en­tists, and just any enthu­si­as­tic per­son, in the same phys­i­cal space to see what awe­some, amaz­ing things they can build with sci­ence over a 24-hour peri­od. And peo­ple build some pret­ty amaz­ing things. 

They build high-altitude bal­loons that map the Earth’s sur­face below. We had some­one build a lamp that would light up every time an aster­oid flew by the Earth, so is sort of like a death lamp. We had peo­ple build DNA ties, so that it was a tie that would light up in your indi­vid­ual DNA sequence, depend­ing on who wore it. The cool thing about this is that it was made by a cou­ple of biotech stu­dents, and it uses Arduino, the micro­con­troller plat­form, to pow­er up those light. But pri­or to com­ing to Science Hack Day, they had nev­er used Arduino before. So it’s not just about peo­ple com­ing to learn about sci­ence, though you can def­i­nite­ly do that, but it’s about learn­ing new ways of pro­to­typ­ing and real­ly con­tribut­ing to sci­ence and inter­act­ing with science.

Ariel Waldman Hacking Space Exploration 00 13 01

We also had some­one come and take par­ti­cle col­li­sion data and map it to sounds. So if you could imag­ine instead of see­ing a visu­al­iza­tion of what a par­ti­cle col­li­sion looks like, you could actu­al­ly hear what a par­ti­cle col­li­sion might sound like. It’s pret­ty amaz­ing and, it was pret­ty amaz­ing to lis­ten to. 

And right about now you might be ask­ing, Well, these are real­ly cute and adorable and fun, but how are they actu­al­ly con­tribut­ing to sci­ence?” And the great thing about this par­ti­cle wind chime is that it’s actu­al­ly being looked into by accel­er­a­tor lab­o­ra­to­ries as a sort of aug­ment­ed diag­nos­tic tool for peo­ple to be able to not only be sur­round­ed by a bunch of screens telling them how the accel­er­a­tor is doing, but also get used to the sounds and how it sounds and be able to tell if some­thing sounds a lit­tle bit off about the accelerator. 

So that’s real­ly kind of the great thing about Science Hack Day, is it’s real­ly meant to be a spark for future col­lab­o­ra­tions and future inspi­ra­tions and future ways of con­tribut­ing to sci­ence in unex­pect­ed ways. 

So, since we’re in San Francisco, the next Science Hack Day is actu­al­ly in November, and you all are invit­ed to come. And I real­ly hope and, with hav­ing all these design­ers and cre­ative peo­ple here, that you all start think­ing about unex­pect­ed ways in which you could con­tribute to sci­ence and space explo­ration. And I real­ly hope that we all leave here, and it’s my dream that we all leave here, and get excit­ed and make things with sci­ence, and real­ly make amaz­ing new ways of inter­act­ing with it and con­tribut­ing to it.

Thank you.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.