Navigating NASA’s Space Apps Challenge Hackathon

Equal parts perspiration and inspiration fuel this futuristic crowd-sourced event. Are you up to the challenge?

By Lindsey Kennedy

Hackathons are the tech world’s favorite way to get things done. Though often centered on a competition, hackathons also harness the spirit of collaboration, challenging participants from varying backgrounds to join forces to create something unique.

Under the pressure of a ticking clock, “hackers” enjoy the free caffeine and make important career connections. Nonprofits, corporations and even government agencies are using the model to crowd-source innovation, and NASA’s Space Apps Challenge is perhaps the biggest and coolest of them all.

The Space Apps Challenge is a 48-hour event that puts NASA-acquired data in the hands of innovators across the globe as a part of the Open Government Initiative. Participating teams create mobile tools to address a broad range of challenges such as piloting satellites, designing wearable technology for astronauts and turning NASA’s many breathtaking Earth images into art.

Now in its third year, the challenge has more than 8,000 participants from 95 locations, representing every continent except Antarctica. Kansas City digital marketing firm Ingenology brought the contest to KC last year, winning one of the five top prizes for its project “Sol: The World’s First Interplanetary Weather App.”

To Ingenology’s Mike Wilson, the opportunity to collaborate with/compete against the entire globe is a great opportunity for Kansas City. “We have brilliant talent here, and I think Space Apps allows us to utilize and showcase that to the entire world,” he says.

This year, the KC team continues its winning strategy of project-managing large teams that focus on a few select challenges. Each individual team member has a specific function, and the challenges are treated with the same care and professionalism as any client project.

Last year’s win was a remarkable achievement, and this year, the KC team hopes to do it again. “We are more knowledgeable, better prepared, and we have more talent. We’re going to win,” says Mike O’Renick of KC content marketing firm Salva O’Renick. “You really can’t lose because [it is] the opportunity to bring builders, branders and business perspectives together.”

Although winners won’t be crowned until May, two of the KC team’s projects have advanced to the global judging stage. Nominated in the Most Inspiring category is Yorbit, an app that allows users to find, personalize and share some of NASA’s stunning satellite images.

Advancing in the Galactic Impact category is the NERO Project, which stands for Near Earth Recognition Objective. This open-source platform gives DSLR camera users the opportunity to learn about astrophotography as they contribute image data to be used by computer vision scientists to identify Near Earth Objects. “We believe we found a way to commoditize and expand the way that we find near earth objects,” says Wilson. “We’re enabling over 20 million users of DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras to be able to be part of a larger space community, a larger science community for what we call ‘citizen scientists.’”

For NASA, the benefits of the Space Apps Challenge are many. American taxpayers get a hands-on experience with decades worth of scientific data. “We are definitely trying to…optimize the return on the taxpayers investment in these data products,” says Director of NASA’s Applied Sciences Program, Lawrence Friedl, who attended the KC event.

Innovators in sectors that don’t usually tackle the problems of space travel and robotics get a chance to provide a unique perspective and bring NASA technologies to other industries. “We recognize that those same data sets can support a number of products and services in different sectors,” says Friedl. “It’s really trying to encourage, incentivize people to try out the data (to) see where they can improve decision-making and see where they can find innovation.”

Friedl thinks the Space Apps Challenge will promote inter-disciplinary cooperation, inspire NASA internally as scientists get involved in the challenges and even serve as inspiration to the next generation of scientists. “I think it may also cause a broader cross section to contemplate how they might get involved and how they might be connected to space and to science,” he says.

Winners in each category get to attend a NASA launch and tour the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. To get involved in the NASA Space Apps Challenge visit

For a look at the 2014 KC projects, check out and