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Hacked! 7 Ways Hackathons Bring Out the Best in Creativity

Catherine Ragin Williams |
October 29, 2019

The fourth annual Johnson Space Center Hackathon, hosted by the Emerge Employee Resource Group and sponsored by the Chief Technologist Office, brought together game changers within the Johnson community to brainstorm unique solutions to complex issues that stood to benefit from new perspectives across the center. Held on Oct. 8 at Space Center Houston, this innovation marathon encouraged a diversity of thought that will help pave the way for Johnson as we embark on perhaps our most challenging missions to come: the Moon by 2024, and then on to Mars.

The first place Hackathon winner was Team 6 completing the Design of Multi-Gravity Seating for In-Space and Planetary Crew Restraint challenge. Pictured, from left: Hackathon Lead Arden Robertson; Michelle Frieling (judge, KBR program manager for the Human Health and Performance contract); Stan Love (judge, astronaut and deputy chief of the Rapid Prototyping Lab); Emma Lehnhardt (judge and manager for Program Planning and Control for the Gateway Program); Team 6 winners Joshua Kivijarv, Cory Nguyen, Charlie Lipscomb, Steven Smith and Damon Saber; Mark Geyer (judge, JSC director); and Ronnie Clayton (judge, deputy chief technologist). Image Credit: NASA/James Blair

The big milestone achieved for this year’s hackathon was full directorate representation. Of the 78 total attendees, 30 participants came from different divisions, and even White Sands Test Facility had virtual inclusion via Skype. From civil servants to contractors, co-ops and interns to GS-15s, all generations and experience levels took part in finding solutions for the following challenges.


Design of Multi-Gravity Seating for In-Space and Planetary Crew Restraint (SF3)

JSC Homepage Search Engine (CK/IO)

Lunar Dust Mitigation Ideas (EX2/XI)

Mobile Device-Based Medical System for Exploration Missions (SF3/SD)

Moon to Mars Maintenance Module Design/Definition (AD7)


And now, without further ado, here are 7 ways Hackathons bring out the best in creativity—and why next year you should take part if you haven’t already!

1. Johnson enjoys a diverse workforce—and the benefits that ‘STEM’ from it.

“As a judge, I enjoyed seeing the diversity within each of the challenge teams across JSC’s technical, operations and business organizations,” said JSC Deputy Chief Technologist Ronnie Clayton. “JSC has an incredibly smart, capable workforce. These unique and interesting perspectives, applied to the challenges, brought forward really interesting, innovative solutions.”

2. And, oh, by the way, that workforce can be generous with their time and determined … all for the greater good of achieving the center’s goals.

“There were two diverse teams that worked on this challenge,” explained Flight Operations Directorate Postflight Mission Manager Donna Shaw, co-owner of the JSC Homepage Search Engine challenge. “We were excited to see and hear some of the detailed and implementable suggestions presented by both teams, especially due to the limited timeframe they were given. The mock-up screens provided and search engine configuration requirement suggestions were insightful. They also presented ideas to attract more of the JSC data owner population to adopt and participate in this collaboration effort. We offered the opportunity for follow-on input on this challenge to the combined groups, receiving a resounding ‘yes!’”

3. Crowdsourcing is a great way of getting a fresh look at an existing problem.

“The hackathon served as a sanity check on what we, as a project team, had been discussing,” said Orion Crew Health Integration Specialist David Rubin, challenge owner for Mobile Device-Based Medical System for Exploration Missions. “Having the hackathon team confirm the viability of our ideas strengthened our confidence that proceeding down this path is worthwhile.”

4. Concentrated effort in short timeframes can produce compelling results.

“I was blown away by many teams bringing forward full proofs of concept in such a short period of time,” said Hackathon judge Emma Lehnhardt, also the Program Planning and Control manager for the Gateway Program. “For example, both teams working on the JSC Search Engine challenge created full search engine and user interface prototypes.”

5. Real life can serve as inspiration.

“They definitely came up with some ideas beyond what we had looked at by repurposing things from real life, like a car wash cleaning system,” said Moonshot Navigator Michael Interbartolo, challenge owner for Lunar Dust Mitigation Ideas.

6. Networking and meeting new people with a different knowledge base can aid your day-to-day work.

“Every year we are excited to receive feedback on how Hackathon brought together NASA employees that were working on complementary projects, but may just not have known it because they don’t work in the same directorate, or they work at another facility, like the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory or White Sands. It is truly inspiring to see our motto of ‘Collaborate. Innovate. Create’ come to life to achieve the mission,” said Hackathon Lead Arden Robertson, also an Office of the Chief Financial Officer budget analyst supporting the Flight Operations Directorate.

7. Finally, Hackathons are a great way to break our dependence to tired solutions.

“Exploration moves at such a fast pace that there often isn’t time or funding to pursue alternative ideas, and we end up rehashing what was done before, whether it is the best solution or not,” said Robert Howard, lab manager for the Center for Design and Space Architecture and challenge owner for Design of Multi-Gravity Seating for In-Space and Planetary Crew Restraint. “I submitted a challenge to the Hackathon because I had the beginnings of an idea that I thought might save the agency time and money in the long term, but needed an opportunity to begin to flesh it out. I needed the Hackathon to gather a few people, with a few uninterrupted hours, to focus on this idea and see what they could come up with.”