Our Flying Friends

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OpenEars in Space!

07 July

When I was but a wee geeklet, my hands-down favorite museum was the Boston Museum of Science, Where It’s Fun to Find Out.1 Although “Delightful” may not be the most common response to “Early-80s Boston” on a word association test2, the Museum of Science was a garden of both earthly and unearthly delights. There was a multistory Tyrannosaurus Rex which would freak you out properly every time3, there was the world’s largest Van de Graaff generator which allowed you to touch actual lightning and live to brag about it, and there was The Only Exhibit That Mattered: the Space Capsule. The Space Capsule was a life-size replica of an Apollo capsule that you could climb into, hear broadcasts from the missions, and operate to the full extent of your imagination and the imagination of whichever random little kid had inevitably gotten in there with you. I loved the space capsule so much, and I naturally wanted to go to space, because it was space!

Still: I was quite compact, and even I noticed that the clearance inside the capsule was a little tight. Perhaps too tight? As exciting as it was to get into the capsule, it was always a relief to climb back out again into the big, airy museum room after the mission was completed. It was a good exhibit; without laying it on too thick, it managed to communicate that space travel was heroic not only because it was an adventure, but also because it was a sacrifice. And like nearly all children who played astronaut, I grew up into an earthbound adult without noticing it, other than in the rare moments that something illuminated that stored-away dream.

I mention this just to explain why I was particularly excited when I originally saw a repository under NASA’s GitHub account using OpenEars. I got some time to catch up with Rashid Sial of TopCoder, and he filled me in on the details.

The NASA Tournament Lab International Space Station Food Intake Tracker project was originally a 2013 contest conducted by the NASA Tournament Lab, under contract with Harvard University and built by the TopCoder community, to develop an iPad app that the astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station could use to track their food intake, with OpenEars including the CMU Sphinx project offered as one handsfree interface option for participating developers. From the repository README.md:

“Astronauts, Cosmonauts, and Space Cadets (okay, we made the last one up), all face huge technical challenges, are performing scientific experiments on a daily basis, and are working hard to stay fit. One of the key aspects of this is working to understand how microgravity affects their bodies, and how to best keep them healthy. And as part of both space medicine and science, we need to understand what they’ve eaten, and how much they’ve eaten.”

The amazing news: Rashid told me that now that the contest is over, the app is actually going to ship. To the International Space Station.

Tentatively scheduled for 2015, the International Space Station Food Intake Tracker from NASA Tournament Lab is another great app made with OpenEars and I’m, ahem, over the moon to have been able to contribute. Thank you Rashid and the NASA Tournament Lab for letting me know about this awesome project!


1This 1970s-vintage ad is such an interesting example of the fallacy that progress moves in a straight line. Check out how un-self-conscious it is about the assertive little girl with a pack of questions and her no-prob-we’ll-go-learn-some-science-together dad.

2Unless you were a sports fan!

3If you were lucky enough to be little while we still were laboring under the misapprehension that T. Rex stood upright, that is. They’ve now fixed the posture of the T. Rex in the museum so it is scientifically accurate, but it now fits entirely in a single story so I’m afraid the thrill factor is significantly reduced.