Yes, You can NASA that!

When you need an address, a definition, or information about anything on earth, friends will tell you to ‘Google that’; however, what if your smart device or robot needed to look something up, considering they too have become a part of the ‘Internet of Things’? For them, ‘Googling that’ may help narrow some choices but the binary-like answers (yes or no) that futuristic devices will need to operate may have to come from another source altogether such as a ‘collaborative search engine’, driven and inspired by a half-a-century old institution, NASA. 

What is a ‘collaborative search engine’?

In short it is a search engine that by today’s standards is incomplete; not because a database is missing or links broken beyond repair, but because its primary source of information does not yet exist and is essentially pending discovery. Let me explain.  While Google has become the central source for all known data, (good, bad, and even ugly), NASA is emerging with an alternative search engine concept altogether. Instead of ‘crawling’ throughout the web to organize existing data the way Google algorithms do, NASA is organizing groups of talented individuals all over the world through virtual ‘Challenges’ to help it address a daunting list of unsolved problems whose collective contributions may one day make space travel as much of a business reality as airlines are today. Their global efforts will soon be centralized into a massive collection of ideas that will be in one way or another associated with NASA’s existing space data.

NASA’s Space Apps Challenges
These Space Apps Challenges, as they are called, are huge. Last year’s two-day global event, for example, broke the Guinness Book of World records for the largest ever ‘Hackathon’-like gathering with over 9,000 registered participants representing 484 organizations in 83 cities across 44 countries. At this year’s event, the number of attendees worldwide jumped above 10,000 and is expected to rise further as NASA continues to tap outside its walls for novel ideas, clever approaches, and outright brilliant breakthroughs all from cadres of scattered, talented, and unlikely groups of individuals.

This year one of their city events was held at AlleyNYC near Times Square located in the heart of New York City where a packed house of eager space aficionados of all ages, all walks of life, and every professional talent imaginable converged to inspire and get inspired. In a business-like manner, NASA’s Deputy CIO and CTO, Deborah Diaz, opened the event by presenting details of the institution’s tide-changing decision to post NASA’s gargantuan vaults of space data on the web at; …where anyone with an internet connection can access its vast contents freely. Experimental data from the International Space Station (ISS), weather data on Neptune, meteorite real-time positioning, GPS-landscape image coordinates on Mars and so much more are accessible for the connecting. NASA hopes its open-data policy will inspire groups to form organically as they often do at their Hackathons and address many of the institution’s pressing current and future challenges in space. On a side note, Diaz expressed her profound views that NASA’s open-source efforts could one day change the future of global democracies from one of ‘freedom-of-choice’ to one of ‘freedom-of-thought’.

NASA’s Challenges in Space
To help participants place space challenges into perspective, American test pilot mission specialist astronaut, Doug Wheelock, who logged 178 days on the Space Shuttle shared his views about space and space travel with participants during a press conference at the event. According to Wheelock, space is a brutally hostile environment that does not compare to anything on earth. To appreciate his perspective, imagine a place where the sun rises and sets 16 times every 24 hours, and every time the sun shines, materials such as the body of the space station or an astronaut’s spacesuit is subjected to temperatures exceeding 450 degrees Fahrenheit. When the sun sets, temperatures swing the other way dropping to 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Radiation levels surrounding the space station are so high that despite the station’s thick walls, some of the 70+ laptops on board used to perform experiments may inadvertently ‘fry’. In a humble manner, Wheelock told a packed audience that NASA cannot continue its mission to Mars without the discovery of new materials that can withstand wide frequent temperature swings and intense radiation exposures over long periods of time.

Medical issues in space are another of NASA’s imperatives. Wheelock described issues with atrophy in the leg muscles, blurred vision, depression, and even loss of taste, all due to exposure to zero-gravity. Taken for granted on earth, gravity gives our legs purpose, our sight a level horizon to distinguish moving objects, our potential mood swings a sense of equilibrium, and even our mouth active taste buds. Our brains are wired to calibrate our bodily functions based on gravity levels. In a zero-gravity environment, for example, our legs become, essentially useless. In a defensive move, the brain will push blood away from the legs to the brain to allow for recalibration in a gravity-changed environment. Space station astronauts have learned to counter some of these physical anomalies by exercising their legs regularly with bungee cords, for example, but look to other sources for future discoveries and ideas on preventing potential blindness and automating cures for other unexpected and yet-to-be-encountered physical and psychological disorders and ailments.

Challenges in Space Travel
Then, there was the question about space travel; a question that just about any individual young or old would want to ask an astronaut. What is it really like lifting off from earth in the Space Shuttle, living at the International Space Station for months at a time, and taking a space walk? Here Wheelock did not disappoint.

In a candid and unreserved manner, Wheelock described the distinct noises he would hear while walking underneath the space shuttle prior to a launch. He spoke of the heaving and creaking of the massive rocket’s cylindrical shapes, which were brim-filled with liquid hydrogen. He also pointed to the constant clicking sound of the many valves used to control fuel flow. The area was in his own words, ‘its own climate’, with chunks of ice falling and water dripping off the sides surrounded by clouds of hydrogen escaping violently with high pitched hissing sounds. He gazed up at the rocket’s main nozzle knowing that at liftoff its center would reach 6,000 degrees or two-thirds of the temperature of the surface of the sun. Since no metal can withstand such high heat levels, NASA engineers designed a thickness sufficient to prevent the metal from melting completely before its final phase release. With sincere earnest, Wheelock turned to the audience once more and informed them that future space travel requires stronger and lighter materials that have yet to be discovered.

After liftoff a rocket will roll to one side to counter air dynamic forces caused by the shuttle’s stubby wings and to face its antennas toward earth. From the ground the roll looks smooth and orderly but inside, Wheelock admits, ‘it’s another world’. Once airborne the rocket rattles ‘like mad’. The G-forces he experienced are so great that reaching a switch on the controls overhead requires an immense physical effort. The vibrations and gyrations of this metallic beast forging its way against the will of nature causes the vessel to ‘rock all over’. At the earth’s orbital surface, the vessel switches to a liquid fuel and upon entering space reverts to Newtons second law of motion, a state when an object in motion will stay in motion. With a deep sigh of relief, the astronauts are finally cleared for space travel. Their vessel floats gingerly onward into the silence of space.

Inside the International Space Station, a new normal for life on board evolves quickly. Food is tasteless. The air in the station smells like the venting area of a power supply unit. The temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees and the prevailing noise of vents cooling laptops and other electronics hums at a familiar 60 MHz frequency level. The sleeping quarters are slightly quieter, while the exercise room tends to capture the smell of human sweat. Missing in the minds of the astronauts is the familiar earth scents of dirt and grass.

On the few occasions Wheelock ventured on space walks, he liked referring to the space drama film, Gravity  to illustrate his experiences. ‘It’s pretty accurate’, he said. Similar to one of the film’s most suspenseful scenes, Wheelock briefly described his own feelings when he had to release his safety cord attached to the station to complete an improvised maneuver.  For a brief moment as he pressed the button on a joy stick controlling the jet packs on his 300 pound suit (last designed in 1970), Wheelock recalls rotating around to a magnificent view of the earth with the space station out of sight. Images of 2001: A Space Odyssey flashed in my mind as he described his brief encounter of being ‘very alone in space’. With no GPS available to remotely control his automatic safe return to the station, Wheelock turned to the audience and again pointed at more areas where NASA needs help with new ideas and discoveries.

Historically NASA has always fed the industry pipeline for technological advancements. The incredible feats of lifting rockets, placing satellites into orbit, and landing humans on the moon have pushed the envelope on technological breakthroughs. The many derivative applications have created new industries, exciting careers, and a notable increase in global economic standards of living.

In an effort to address a proposed landing on Mars in the next 30 years, NASA is once again taking the lead on reinventing the future of data search engines to be developed by unlikely groups of global talent, fueled by NASA data, and created for machines to interact with other machines. Do not be surprised when, in the not-so-distant future, your friendly robot pauses during one of your voice commands to say, “Yes. I can NASA that?”

© 2014 Tom Kadala