How I won a NASA competition, part 1

While it can be seen as a huge step, this is no more than the sum of many small steps. How did it all started anyway?

I’ve always been a very inquisitive person, making questions about why things worked the way they do. I was reading a lot back in 2010, looked at my shelves and thought, why do I need so many read books around? Cannot I just give them away to someone who wants them and get others the same way? This led me to start learning how to program to create a book sharing service at 20 with no experience. No need to explain much more, that idea failed horribly in all the ways it could.

Forward 2 years ahead, dozens of way-too ambitious ideas and small but fun projects, we’re looking at the time I helped creating an association within my university, Makers UPV. We were many who were not happy with the theoretical education we were receiving so we set up to change things. With little idea of what we were doing, we started giving workshops, organizing visits and participating in contests.

I’m specially fond of one of them, AESS Challenge 24h. It was a 24 hours contest to create a robot that throws ping pong balls the farthest possible. We ended up wining several of the categories, however we only got in 2nd place of the ranking. There’s so many things about rapid prototyping that I learned here that could fill another article, I’ll just have to say that what we learned here was decisive.

A few months later, while I was in the Hack for Good competition, I received a whatsapp from my mother about this NASA competition. I didn’t have time at that moment so I let it pass. Days later I read it again and saw it was a contest in Valencia.

Closer the contest I invited some of my friends but none of them could make it. However, Juan Carlos Sebastiá, called me few moments later to say that he changed his mind and cancelled some of his plans to get there. It was a Friday afternoon, with the contest starting that evening. Once there, introductions of the contest and people were made and we were sent back home.

Preparing for action

We couldn’t have a good sleep that night though. How could we? We just got into one of the biggest contests we’ve ever been. We spent most of the night talking through Skype, reading the documents and making out what to do. I still remember this little bit of that night:

Staring outside the window I could see the dark sky with all the stars, dreaming of our project getting there. I also could see my own reflection and that eureka moment came. Our helmet had to have an integrated screen that allows to see through, but also to see within.

I showed Juan Carlos the idea and he loved it, so we decided to make it one of the main features. I had also been fiddling around recently with a simple webcam Processing program I made for recognizing where an orange was while I was supposed to be “studying”. It also made it into the final project feature list with a huge twist: it would be used to recognize where the astronaut is pointing with his finger.

Next morning we set out to Paterna, a nearby town to find a webcam from a friend since mine didn’t work properly. We detailed the plan on the short trip; there wasn’t time for much and most of the features we wanted had to be stripped down or completely removed. We set the most realistic times possible, knowing that any overhead would have to take part of our sleep.

How did we plan the features? Just like in real life we were making a product that had to compel people. So we knew that 20% of the product would attract 80% of the attention and we decided to focus on that. We set on the most visually attractive features, the things that would clearly show on stage for the jury and the people.

We created a damn huge helmet

Most of the other teams made mobile apps as local news were advertising it as an “app contest”. We built a space helmet that included a HUD, 360 degrees cameras on top with a finger tracking technology, a monitoring system with Arduino and some Engineering sugar: leds and EL wire.

While building it in Workether, a now-closed great collaborative space, everyone would get around to check it out and ask questions about it. We got the technology working during the Saturday, with me focusing mainly on the software and Juan Carlos on the hardware. There were a couple of nice-to-have things that we had initially planned but couldn’t make them work on time.

I spent the rest of the Sunday’s finishing the programs and making sure no last-minute technical problems could arise while Juan Carlos prepared the presentation.

Lights off

Everyone is quiet when the audio of the first human landing on the moon starts playing. We walk slowly while I feel the weight of the helmet on my shoulders. We set up in seconds while “one small step for man” starts fading away.

Some planets fire up on the screen and I shout “what’s that?” while pointing to the moon with my green glove. The projector quickly displays “The Moon” and I smile. I repeat the same steps for some different elements on the screen, spot on, while facing away from the audience; so they could also see what I could see on the HUD.

We finish this small introduction and I turn to the people. Juan Carlos gives the presentation while I hold the helmet and point to everything he’s explaining, nervous from being in front of so many people but with a sincere smile of accomplishment across my face.

Lights on, questions and voting time

He finished the great speech and tons of questions arise. Fortunately we were both prepared for all of them so we go back. Other people finish showing their projects, with one team showing suddenly also a plant pot prototype. Later we confirmed that they made from seeing how a physical object was so appealing to people around. They also won the local phase in another category.

The people got to vote and we decided to vote other projects and not our own. This was all part of a plan that got tighter than expected; we ended up wining the people’s choice by a single vote. We are still not sure whether or not we’d have won if we voted ourselves; we had been talking with most of the people there and visibly vote for the two largest teams, which earned us many more than two votes.

So we won the local phase

Subscribe with mailchimp to automatically get the Part 2, how we won the international phase. I hope you enjoyed it, find me @fpresencia

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