It’s not a stretch to say that NASA is on the vanguard of innovation. Still, even an innovative pioneer occasionally could use a little help from friends.
This past weekend, more than 100 hackers—including one man who came down to Houston from Michigan—spent 36 hours at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative tackling challenges aimed at improving astronaut health in space.
All the requisite hackathon supplies were in evidence: bags of Capri Sun drink, a “MacGyver” table full of wires and gadgets, many Google Glass-es, and even a T-shirt declaring “Talk Nerdy to Me.”
Eleven teams formed under individual flags such as “Webcam Pulse Detector” and “Computer-based Training for Astronauts,” where the hackers came up with plans to digitize NASA medical training manuals, help locate lost—and presumably, floating—items on the International Space Station, and a mobile app to create a “virtual physician.”
Using a 3-D printer, the group called “SMMID,” or Space Multi-purpose Medical Imaging Device, created a plastic molding for an iPhone to create an all-in-one medical probe using the smartphone’s camera. Instead of having multiple devices to examine ears or a throat, the hackers say different attachments can be fixed to the prototype, thereby giving the device multiple uses.
Another team designed the “Space Hospital in a Toilet,” which got a lot of chuckles while they explained how their commode-based sensor could track dehydration by evaluating an astronaut’s urine. (While it was clear how male astronauts would be able to hit the sensor for proper evaluation, the judges were told that ensuring accurate readings for female astronauts would take more study.)
The winning project, however, was an online diet tracker called “Astronoms”—as in nom nom nom—that is designed to create a database that can help monitor astronauts’ health.
The judging panel, which included Dorit Donoviel, deputy chief scientist at the National Space and Biomedical Research Institute in Houston, and Gabriella Draney, co-founder of Tech Wildcatters in Dallas, awarded top honors to five projects. Winners will get office hours at NASA and access to co-working space at Brightwork CoResearch.
Fred Trotter, a healthcare entrepreneur and one of the hackathon’s organizers, said several people floated among teams offering their services, a level of cooperation not usually founded at competitions like this. “What’s wrong with you people?” he quipped to the audience.
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