Exploring space together


- a conversation with Ariel Waldman, founder of Spacehack.org.
This article was previously published in the Media Evolution publication DIT – Tools For Collaboration. Order it here!

Do It Together - Tools for Collaboration

Pause, and think of the movie Armageddon for a second. A bunch of cowboy oil drillers invent a drill head for asteroids. They are then sent out into deep space together with trained astronauts to save the earth. Fiction, yes, but probably the best example of cross business innovation in the history of film.

Serendipity landed graphic designer and new born space geek Ariel Waldman a job at Nasa’s CoLab Program. When she left she started a mission of her own, deciding to open up space exploration to everyone.

– In 2008 or so I was watching this documentary at home about Nasa and the Apollo missions and I thought it was really inspiring. After watching it I randomly decided to send someone
at Nasa an email that I wanted to work for them. They serendipitously created a job description for someone like me, and I (very randomly) got a job at Nasa! It changed my perspective on everything, making me realize that people from all kinds of backgrounds can actively contribute to space exploration in meaningful ways. When I left Nasa I spent two weeks building Spacehack.org to try and help people figure out ways to contribute to space exploration. I’m quite surprised at how much people like it: I built it for fun, and figured people might like it for a few weeks and then maybe they would forget about it. But it’s coming up on five years since I built Spacehack, and people still react to it really positively.


In 2011, Ariel Waldman held a keynote at the Open Source Convention about 1969, the year of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. That same year, the first message was sent over ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). Since then the Internet has reached approximately two billion people, whilst only five hundred people have been in space.

Apollo 11. (Source: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov CC)

– I think something happened with ARPANET and the Internet. It was originally designed for physicists to use, but something happened where it became massively accessible and grew and grew. Unfortunately space exploration became a top down thing. It wasn’t distributed. It wasn’t something that anyone could take up in their own time. There was a lot of control placed on space exploration, probably due to the fact that it was being used as a political tool between the US and Russia; more war-like reasons for utilizing space exploration.

– It’s interesting to me that in 1969 you really have the birth of two inarguably historical events, and one has now affected two billion people. You are able to observe the changes and turning points of each of those over time and see where space exploration in a sense is lacking. I’m not sure if we can get to space exploration being accessible to two billion people but we certainly should have got a lot further than five hundred.”

So, how do we do it? How can space exploration happen quicker and more successfully by us all doing it together?

– I think the science industry isn’t really aware of how much they could benefit from having people without a scientific background helping. Not in the sense of necessarily ‘citizen science’, but in space exploration you need fashion designers, web developers, people who are mining experts. I think for a long time, when the space industry need help from someone with a specific type of expertise, they look within their own circles for someone who has the expertise – as opposed to reaching out to people who live and breath a different career and having them help them with their problems. I think grouping people with diverse skill sets means getting things done faster, a lot more efficiently.

During its five years, what initiatives have been created through Spacehack?

– Spacehack is always interesting, I feel like I never know the full story of how it impacts people because I designed it so that people would come to it, find something interesting, and never visit it again because they found something through it. There are a lot of stories that I feel I’m not aware of. I’ve heard of groups of people in the Middle East getting a ‘Tubesat’ kit, which is a small satellite kit, which is exciting. I’ve heard of people that have participated in robot competitions as a process for healing their depression, which is great. Just looking at the types of projects over time that has come out and how they’ve been successful is just amazing: there was once a project about creating better algorithms for searching for dark matter. I think one of the best came from a glaciologist who took an algorithm he uses every day to detect glaciers on satellite imagery. He applied that to dark matter and it worked out really well. That’s what I love, and again it’s about including everyone. Spacehack is mostly designed for people without a formal scientific background, but getting scientists involved from differing fields and getting them involved in space exploration is wonderful.

The map is under a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution. Source: http://www.iftf.org/

Do you actively facilitate these meetings or do people just find each other through Spacehack?

– I do a lot of work to get people to feel that they’re empowered and encouraged to discover more in space exploration. There are a lot of good open data sets and open source material that I often direct people to. Open data is great because it allows people to take a raw resource and be very creative with it. My push to people is always to really do something with the data, a constant frustration is that there is a lot of open science data out there, but get- ting people to do interesting things with that data and making that more accessible is much slower.

– There is asteroid data or Voyager data, all types of things, and there are also really amazing ways in which people have made data more accessible, either through bringing things that are otherwise invisible, like asteroids passing by the earth into more visible realms, or doing really interesting things like Galaxy Zoo has done. They’ve taken all the galaxy data and put an interface around it, so that a lot of people can go and classify and investigate these different galaxies that we have data for. Those projects are interesting because they have taken open data that otherwise wasn’t very accessible to many people, and made it accessible to hundreds of thousands of people by just designing an interface around it, making it easily digestible for people who aren’t astrophysicists.

What kinds of international collaborations are currently happening through Spacehack?

– There are all types of things. Last year I traveled to Kenya for a science hack day, we had a particle physicist from Chicago skyping in to space hackers in Kenya, collaborating over the course of a weekend to create a particle physics data visualization. Even though they weren’t able to physically meet, they worked together across huge distances. In this example, the physicist and the hackers were able to create refined particle physics data visualizations.

Are you still in contact with Nasa? Do you talk to them frequently about this?

– Yes, I do. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to have a good relationship with people at Nasa. I’m often in disbelief about it, because I have phone calls from different people at Nasa every other week just to talk through different ideas. I feel that my twelve year old self would think that was really cool. But yes, I still talk to them about how to open up space exploration further and how to empower people to be able to do space exploration related contributions with or without their help and how they can navigate that.

– Nasa has progressed over the last five years. When I first came into Nasa, social media was still very uncertain and they weren’t fully embracing it, whereas now they are really embracing social media and engaging people. Their largest challenge is how to engage people who don’t already self identify as a space geek. Prior to working at Nasa I didn’t identify myself as a space geek! The thing that I want to see Nasa get good at is to break past their eco chamber and be able to reach out to people who otherwise don’t think about space exploration much, but if they had the chance to do something space related, would find it really cool – that’s exactly the position that I was in.

We were talking earlier about how far we’ve come with the Internet compared to space exploration. Do you have a time- frame, at what rate is space exploration evolving and how is it getting faster through what you and your friends around the world are doing?

– In regards to space exploration being more accessible in general, in the next ten years there’s going to be a ‘citizen science renaissance’. Not just in space exploration, but also in other areas of science. In the biotech industry for example we’re seeing bio-hack spaces being formed. In space exploration you’re seeing not only human space life becoming something that people are aiming to make more accessible – you’re also seeing space information being much more widely distributed. I think that it’s something with all the sciences combined there are a lot of efforts from all different sides combined to make it more accessible, and once it’s accessible to actually empower people to make real contributions. At least as I’ve been watching it, I think it’s on a ten-year scale something that people feel they can contribute to, with or without a science background. From space exploration to bio-tech to neuro-tech, just by making sci- entific data available to contribute to, you’re going to get really interesting mashups of ideas and collaborations. Ways of doing things that otherwise wouldn’t have come out if it weren’t as accessible.

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