Space is For Everyone
September 5, 2012
Ariel Waldman Tells Us How to Hack Space Exploration and Get Involved
Ariel Waldman thinks space exploration should not be limited to professional scientists and advocates for public participation in off world projects. Waldman is the founder of Spacehack.org, a website that acts as a repository for citizen space science projects and Science Hack Day, a twenty-four-hour event that brings scientists and nonscientists together to see what can be rapidly prototyped in such a short time. She, like many others like her, are illuminating the scientific community to the value of the public and is elbowing in to create a place for an average person in science’s endeavors into space. She is not alone in her efforts. SETI, NASA, Yale, Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and others are developing citizen scientist projects to harness the skills and power of the general public to advance science.
Spacehack.org is a repository of citizen science projects that the average person can participate in, most of which actually value the participants enough to credit them with recognition for their efforts. Waldman sees Spacehack and similar projects as pick-axes to tradition and has a clear vision of what Spacehack should do: “Ideally, breaking down this concept that science is something you need to have a degree to get involved in. I’m very frustrated a lot of times because I do attend a decent number of science conferences, often I will ask a panelist or speaker, ‘I don’t have a science background but I think what you are doing is really awesome, what can I do?’ Often, often their answer is, ‘You can always go back to school.’ ARG!”
Waldman continued, “So much of the focus is around kids and getting kids interested in science, which is totally noble and I’m not critiquing it at all. It’s what a lot of people should be focusing on. But I think people who have grown up and chosen a different career are considered lost to science. Oh, you chose the lesser career, oh you chose the more feminine career as a fashion designer or something. By communicating not only you from any industry can get involved in space exploration, but also maybe even that space exploration could use help from your specific perspective and discipline and create equally remarkable things out of that, that is really what space hack and other projects can add. [It] is really tearing down that invisible wall that science has put up and really, really promoting that it can be de-institutionalized.”
The citizen science movement is still in its infancy and Waldman knows it is still strongly reliant on traditional scientists to lead the way but hopes it won’t always be that way. “It’s difficult because even now I think citizen science is at its early stages. Most of the citizen science projects today are created by people who work in science who are good enough people who want to open it up to more people. I think in the future you’ll be seeing more projects ideally that come from people from all different disciplines where it will be more self-directed, so it won’t be a scientist saying, this is a really interesting project, you should work on it but citizens saying, this is a really interesting problem, why is no one focusing on it, I’m gonna start focusing on it.”
Citizen scientist efforts do have potential advantages over that of traditional science. Bureaucratic and political climates and profit motives can hamper research into important fields of research. Waldman believes the ability to tackle unpopular topics will make citizen science valuable to society in the future.
“Definitely there is interesting stuff with unpopular science. I have seen interesting hacks and citizen science come out of or around the science of sex. It is a fascinating topic that often doesn’t get funding because it’s risky or bureaucratic reasons. So the idea of doing more science around sex in general through having more people be able and being empowered to study it, is really great. That’s just an example of unpopular science. Really though, I think all science could use it.”
It’s apparent to Waldman that citizen scientists will have to prove their value to traditional science and like all things in science, it will take awhile for them to gain acceptance. She thinks the scientific community will finally see its worth, but it is going to take some convincing. “Maybe not within the next year but within ten years, I would say yes. Now it is still very hit and miss. For as many scientists who I talk that totally get it and are completely open, I also talk to a number of scientists that think it’s cute or a toy. These are actually things they have said to me and it’s very frustrating. Even when you say, ‘Well, but, these people have made a scientific discovery,’ they will be like, ‘Yeah, but it’s not really that interesting science.’ ‘But it was cited on all these papers.’ ‘But yeah those papers were already....’ They do anything to talk it out and kind of tell you why it is not important. I think that will change. There are already stories to tell.”
There is reason to be optimistic about the future of citizen science. Waldman shared the story of how a citizen science project Galaxy Zoo lead to the discovery of the phenomenon now called Hanny’s Voorwerp. Galaxyzoo.org is a citizen science project that uses average people to classify galaxies using Hubble Telescope pictures. A simplified system allows users to easily sort galaxies. More advanced users can also look through less simplified data to make more in depth discoveries. In a survey of Galaxy Zoo users, Galaxy Zoo found the most common interaction with science their users had was science documentaries.
“Someone discovered a very weird thing in Galaxy Zoo data. It was this weird blob,” Waldman continued, “This woman was like, ‘What is this weird thing.’ Scientists were like, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that, don’t worry about that.’ She was like, ‘No, I think this is a really interesting blob.’ She looked into it and more and more people looked into it and it’s actually, I’m probably going to get this slightly wrong, essentially it’s a piece of gas that is heated up by, I want to say, pulsar in a nearby galaxy. It’s a phenomenon that has never been seen before. It was a phenomenon documented before. Not only did she go and do this and find this interesting thing, and now it’s called Hanny’s Voorwerp. Voorwerp is the Dutch word for “thingy,” and it’s not anything technical at all. This woman Hanny found it.”
Not to be stopped at just discovering, Hanny pushed on. “Not only as a result she found this thing, she along with some of the Galaxy Zoo scientists got time on Hubble and got Hubble to reimage this image to better study it.”
Waldman thinks the fact that Hanny, a school teacher from the Netherlands, made such a contribution to science is hard to ignore. “The fact that someone, from anywhere in the world, found something weird and was determined to say, ‘No, this is really fascinating” and then ended up being able to control Hubble, I think is so exciting and so cool. I think there will be more stories like that, that emerge over the next ten years. I think haters are gonna hate; people are going to want to say bad things, but I think in ten years’ time there are going to be enough stories like that where someone is going to sound a bit more ridiculous to be saying that it isn’t really making any contributions.”
Hanny was not the only citizen scientist to make a significant discovery on Galaxy Zoo. Citizen scientists reviewing data on the website didn’t just classify a galaxy; they discovered a new one, now called Peas Galaxy or Green Peas Galaxy.
Citizen scientists bring a different perspective to scientific endeavors than do traditionally trained scientists. Waldman explains, “I don’t want to pick sides. Obviously being formally trained has a lot of benefits to it. There are a lot of cosmological things I wish I could explain to people better but I don’t have the years of PhD to do that. I do think it’s a benefit, not only because you do bring in perspectives from whatever life experience or whatever schooling, or not even schooling, that you’ve gone through.”
The benefits also extend to citizen scientists, Waldman tells us: “Since I don’t have schooling in science, I get to pick and choose what I find interesting about science. If I was doing a degree program, I would have to go through all the boring stuff in addition to all the exciting stuff. I am not one to say that all of science is fascinating. There is a lot of stuff that bores the hell out of me. I have the benefit of picking and choosing what I find interesting and being able to focus on those areas. I think that’s something you don’t have the luxury of doing if you are a traditionally trained scientist. Again, I’m not criticizing that, I’m just saying there are benefits to being not traditionally trained and being able to have more freedom of what you do and what you find exciting and when you can stop.”
Waldman knows from experience how much the science bug can infect an average person. Waldman herself was not always a science cheerleader. “I just didn’t think of science or space exploration much at all. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just never really thought about it. It just wasn’t on my radar. And so I don’t have any thoughts of looking at the night sky and being wistful. I just don’t have those stories. All I have is watching a documentary, like any other documentary that I watched, about the Apollo mission. I think the thing that made me excited about it was seeing how NASA actually screwed up a lot before they got to where they are. Seeing them say, “We are going to space and we are totally going to do this.” Then rocket explosion, rocket explosion, rocket explosion, rocket explosion. Guys saying, ‘Let’s try this thing’ and nope, that exploded too. ...The average age of NASA [scientists] during the Apollo Era was twenty six. It was people around my age who were kind of messing around with stuff and didn’t seem to know what they were doing. So thought, ‘That’s awesome. I want to work at NASA.’”
Waldman didn’t stop at a desire to work for NASA; she reached out. “I randomly sent a missive to NASA saying I was a fan and letting them know I was around if they ever needed a volunteer or something. Serendipitously they created a job description that day for someone who had a background like mine, which was experience in advertising and design and start-up. They specifically wanted someone who didn’t work at NASA already so I was very, very lucky. I applied and got the job and it changed my life.”
After she left NASA, she couldn’t leave space exploration behind. “I was only at NASA for a short time but then when I left, it seemed impossible for me to say, I worked in space exploration once for a little while and it was just a job I had. That seemed impossible”
She was inspired to connect to the public with space citizen science projects and started Spacehack.org. “Spacehack is a directory of ways to participate in space exploration. It’s really a bunch of different projects where people can contribute to scientific discovery and space exploration even if they don’t have a science background. This varies from anything from discovering galaxies to building rovers that go to the moon or mars. It’s a wide variety of topics you can get involved in but it is all around the idea that you don’t have to have a PhD in science to do it.”
Spacehack projects are cultivated with nonscientists in mind. Waldman hopes folks of all different disciplines and abilities will participate. “Things like discovering galaxies, you don’t really have to have a specific skill set or background to be able to classify galaxies and potentially go on to discover galaxies. Whereas there are other projects like the University Rover Challenge, which is trying to build the next Mars rover with universities. That is something where yeah, it would be helpful to have more of an understanding in engineering to participate but there’s also projects that have been interesting that incorporate all different types of people.”
“The Google Lunar X Prize, which is trying to build and launch a moon rover, actually have it land on the moon and have it do a bunch of interesting things once it gets there. Those are private teams from around the world who are doing that, and they not only need help from people who may have engineering backgrounds but they also need help from lawyers, they need help from writers, they need help from people who know how to make a wordpress site, designers, everything. So there’s a lot of projects like that, where you can say yes, I worked with a team to help get a rover to the moon and you don’t necessarily need to be an engineer to do that.”
Many worry that privatization may close off avenues to open science projects in space, but Waldman disagrees. She sees the money behind the projects as an asset to changing some frustrating regulations and paving the way for easier collaboration.
“One way is seeing that you’ve got a bunch of millionaires and billionaires running around, playing in space exploration. While that’s cool, that’s totally no more accessible than NASA was and it actually maybe promotes that you have to be super, super rich to get involved in space exploration. However, I would argue these people have a lot of money and a lot of power and they really care about making things more open for them to collaborate for their own personal gain. I think they are the ones who can put pressure on the U.S. government and on regulations that currently really hinder a lot of collaboration already. They are motivated to put pressure on those and get them to loosen up and get them to update all of the laws and regulations to allow for private space exploration which inherently will also apply to citizens. So I think it can be inaccessible for now but you’ve got more people with a lot of power and a lot of money interested in space exploration. I think whether or not they know it now, I think they are going to be paving the way so that ten, twenty years from now citizens actually will have less of a hard time because they really blazed the trail for a lot of things that are currently difficult for those citizens do.”
Waldman is specifically addressing the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR). Universities like MIT and groups like SpaceFoundation.org have suggested revisions to ITAR to improve space exploration and increase international collaboration.
Waldman simplifies ITAR: “It essentially equates doing anything in space similar to if you were building a bomb. All of those regulations that apply to building huge bombs also apply to space exploration. ITAR treats it as this is very secretive information; you cannot trade information. If you even show someone a screw on the floor that has something to do with a satellite, and they are from a different country, definitely the FBI will be right there, knocking on your door.”
Space is one of the few areas of science that is so hindered by Cold War Era legislation, making international collaboration extraordinarily difficult. Waldman, “If another country has a payload, and they want to fly it on our rocket, we can’t tell them any of details about that rocket. If I were to dumb this down a little bit: let’s say there’s a socket on a rocket and a satellite is trying to build a plug to fit into that. They can’t build the plug because the U.S. can’t tell them what the socket looks like. It actually acts against having international standards for space exploration and it also discourages countries from collaborating with us because they don’t have these issues collaborating with other countries.
“The sad thing is this has already affected the U.S. There are projects the European space agency has pulled out of. There are other projects countries now are motivated to—even though they don’t have all the innovation the U.S. does—they are motivated to work with other countries without the U.S. because even though they might be behind us in technology, they can probably get it done faster, and can probably actually guarantee that it is going to launch or do whatever they want. Whereas with the U.S. we have weird ways of doing budgets and regulations that other countries don’t have. We are really widening the gap for other countries to potentially have the opportunity to outpace us. They’re not currently, but we are giving them a head start on it.
“By having these private space ventures, and commercial space ventures, with a lot of money and they want to do international collaboration and they don’t want to deal with all these regulations, because in all their interviews they think they are horrible, that it’s not a good thing; they are the ones sending people to Washington and going to be able to actually make change. In that case, by getting those regulations to be updated more and less cold war era, and making it so all different types of people can collaborate.
“It’s just that these regulations are outdated. That’s why even if people don’t realize it now, these private and commercial space ventures that have a lot of money and power are actually going to make it easier for people in the long run.”
Average folks do not have to wait around for the ultra-mega-rich space-playboys to get around to changing Cold War legislative remnants in order to get involved in space science. Spacehack is always on the lookout for new projects the average citizen scientist can participate in. Waldman uses her own experience as a nonscientist to gauge which projects end up on Spacehack: “I don’t have anything written in stone but I always keep myself in mind. I am not a scientist or a developer. There are projects on Spacehack where it would help if you were a web developer but I just try to keep it reasonable. I absolutely don’t allow any projects that are about money donations for contributing to science, even if the money goes to a really good place because you aren’t actually doing anything. I try to look for projects where you can actively be contributing to something, your time isn’t being wasted, and it’s reasonable to ask anyone from someone who has no skills to a university student who might not have that opportunity otherwise. It is about the accessibility to get into something. Somethings might be harder than others, but if it’s not very accessible to get into in the first place then I’m not going to include it.”
Right now, Waldman is on the lookout for two projects. “There are two that I am frustrated that there are citizen science projects for or at least not one that is up to my standards of what I would like to see. One of them is that we have a problem with orbital debris. There is all this junk in our orbit and there are people around the world who are trying to solve the problem. There are many different ways to solve the problem and I don’t think there is any one way. It’s just a matter of finding interesting and successful ways. ...There’s everything from lasers, to launching satellites that clean up stuff, to new ways of doing flight paths. ...That is probably on my number one on my list. The second would be asteroid detection. ”
A successful citizen scientist isn’t just about inspiration. SETI learned from their SETI Quest program that setting the bar for entry too high can tether the project. The balance of demands on a citizen scientist is extremely important.
“There is a project to detect projects and it is for amateur astronomers. When I say ‘amateur astronomers’ like practically professional grade astronomers who have very expensive equipment who just happen to not be employed by an institution. There was some project I was looking at, at first I was really excited. She realized, “...no this is really extremely in depth, this is expensive equipment, this is not something an everyday person can do. It was saying to contribute, you need like this really expensive telescope or you need to get observing time at an observatory near you.”
The way a citizen scientist interacts with the project is essential to the success of a project. There are years’ worth of pictures and documents to review that are currently open to the public but are not accessible. Waldman thinks it isn’t enough to make information open; people need a way to interact with it.
“I do interaction design stuff so I’m probably extremely biased, but it’s extremely important. Without accessible interfaces to things—and by interface I mean anything from an actual computer interface to having a way to contribute to a Mars Rover program or something in the physical world. Without that, it doesn’t really matter what’s open. It really doesn’t.
“There is so much open stuff out there, and until someone makes it accessible, it might as well not exist. It’s really thinking about how to make things accessible, not just from opening it up and then telling people hey, on Facebook and on Twitter, oh all this stuff is open and come check it out. That’s not it. It’s really thinking through how does someone access this information? How does someone make sense of it? How do they connect with another human being over this? Thinking through those systems is very important.
“And also then thinking through how you make those systems meaningful. On Galaxy Zoo, if you are classifying galaxies, they have a whole system for not only getting that data to scientists but also then feeding that data back to the algorithms that are trying to classify galaxies, which are therefore going to get smarter. So it’s not just about improving things so that you can make scientific data better but also how machine learning and things work so that you are on a progressive trajectory.
“It’s language; it’s interface; it’s understanding how people interact; it’s understanding also that there are multiple different ways where people interact with you. You shouldn’t ever assume that just because everyone you know interacts with data a certain way, and have never seen a case where it hasn’t, doesn’t mean you should only design for that interaction. In Galaxy Zoo, you could go on to discover a galaxy and that requires you that you dig in through all this data they allow you access to but you can also spend five minutes, classifying a few galaxies, leave and never come again, and it’s still a very meaningful thing that does contribute to science. Defining those different entering points and different interactions of those is important.”
Waldman sees scientific diplomacy and outreach as essential to who she is now. “I felt that I was lucky to have such an experience and it shouldn’t be such a luck thing. I think people should be able to contribute to space exploration, and they can. They just don’t know and there is not enough communication around it. For the rest of my life probably, whether I like it or not, I’m somehow going to be involved in space exploration. I don’t always make money off of it—more often than not I don’t make any money doing any of it. It’s something that’s part of my identity now.”
University Rover Challenge
The Google Lunar X Prize
SpaceFoundation.org ITAR Suggestions: