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.

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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. 

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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.

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