Ariel Waldman: Space isn’t just for NASA, but you and me too (video)

19 Jun 2015

Ariel Waldman Founder,

Despite having no official astrophysics or engineering background, Ariel Waldman knew she wanted to be involved in putting men and women into space and so she went about opening space up to the whole planet through space hacking.

Waldman’s interest in space came from a spark of inspiration after watching the documentary in 2008 called When We Left Earth, which spoke to the original NASA engineers who were part of teams that would go down in history as putting the first human beings into space and back again.

Watching it, Waldman was so affected by the efforts of these space pioneers that she decided that, despite her having no background in engineering or astrophysics, she wanted to be able to help NASA out in any way possible.

“I decided to randomly send NASA an email and if they needed someone like me I was around,” she told the Inspirefest 2015 crowd. “I was then able to get a job at NASA with that email.”

Noting that “there’s a lot of geeks in Dublin”, Waldman began her presentation by referring back to the NASA space engineers’ experience of sending the first rockets into space.

What struck her the most about watching NASA’s first engineers was that, in effect, these were the first real ‘space hackers’ tinkering around with an idea until they got it just right.

Life at NASA

And so she went to NASA and began her career learning about all the topics that fascinated her from robotics to dark matter, but it dawned on her after some time that she had been in the comfort of NASA, without actually needing to be.

“One of the most important things I learned while being at NASA was that I didn’t actually need to work at NASA to explore space,” Waldman said. “And so, I left.”

Hacking space and time

Highlighting the famous ‘pale blue dot’ image of Earth taken by Voyager 1 4bn miles away, Waldman said it reminds her of why it inspires her and other space hackers to look past the confines of national space agencies.

“These images show how space exploration often changes the view of ourselves and our place in the universe. But similarly I think we should change how we view space exploration and that’s what a lot of my work focuses on.”

That work, of course, is, which attempts to break the perceived barrier between what is achievable in space exploration, and what can actually be achieved by people who might not even have an astrophysics background, like Waldman.

For example, some of the projects that people are crowdsourcing information and skills for include PolAres, a Mars research programme led by the volunteer organisation, the Austrian Space Forum (OEWF).

Need people from all disciplines

The PolAres programme’s overall goals are to develop strategies for human-robotic interactions in preparation for a future human-robotic Mars surface expedition, all with the help of people who come from all sorts of backgrounds.

“You could be a lawyer, you could be a social media specialist, because they need people from lots of different disciplines to generate all this research and exploratory trends,” she adds.

And it appears that space hacking is a growing pursuit, with previous examples of students here in Ireland launching CanSats (satellites in cans) to monitor weather and other atmospheric data, to what Waldman highlighted, science hack days, like the one held in Dublin ever year.

In a 48-hour period, some of Ireland’s most creative and brightest came up with some out-of-the-box ideas, which actually contributed to better scientific understanding.

One example being the ‘beard detector’, which one hacker configured to shine a USB microscope onto his beard to detect when he needed to shave. Yet an attending particle physicist saw you could use it for following cosmic rays in a cloud chamber with the same concept.

“This is what I love most about science hacking and hacking in general,” Waldman offered as her final thought. “It’s all about being sparks for future ideas and so to me, when it comes to space exploration, you could be searching for exoplanets or extra-terrestrials, but to me it’s the search for experimentation that’s so unbelievably precious.”

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-19 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic