Image of the Noisebridge weather balloon space probe, part of our DIY Space coverage in MAKE Volume 24

I’m excited to announce the launch of the NASA Make Challenge: Experimental Science Kits for Space.

Last year, I met with Lynn Harper and Daniel Rasky of the Space Portal at NASA Ames to talk about ideas for a DIY space issue of MAKE, which became MAKE Volume 24. In that same conversation, we talked about the role that makers could play in space exploration. I recall Lynn saying that we needed “not hundreds of experiments going into space, but hundreds of thousands of experiments.” There is so much we don’t know; so much we could learn, she added, if we simply had more experiments testing what happens in microgravity. The Space Portal team recognized that makers were an untapped resource, ready and willing to take on that kind of challenge. Makers just needed an open door.

Now the Space Portal is known as the Emerging Commercialization Space Office (ECSO), which is the new name for the Space Portal group an official NASA office. Rasky, an inventor who developed the heat shield used by Space X, is the Director of ECSO. We have collaborated with this new office and the Teachers in Space program to create the NASA Make Challenge, which benefits education as well as the space program.

Our first challenge is to develop inexpensive science kits that can be built in a classroom and sent on-board suborbital flights to conduct experiments. The experiments must fit within a Cubesat, a 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm module. It’s an opportunity to use off-the-shelf technology to design projects kits that students can build and see them actually get into space. Imagine: Arduinos in space. (There has already been one Arduino sent into space.)

The Teachers in Space program, located in Plano,TX, will work with teachers across the country to build the first set of kits and make the arrangements for the experiments to fly on an unmanned suborbital vehicle in late summer. Later on, these teachers will work with students to build experimental kits for future flights.

Rasky believes that while there are some venues at NASA for makers to contribute to the space program, such as through the Small Business Innovative Research program, the Innovative Partnership Program Seedlings, and the new Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program, there needs to be “more opportunities for low-cost participation.” He added that the NASA Make Challenge can “open the door to space for the thousands of bright minds that are needed to fully explore the potential of space and demonstrate its many benefits for mankind. ” Rasky said that the Emerging Commercial Space Office at Ames is working to open that door.”

If you are fascinated by space, it’s a great time for you to be able to do something as a maker and make a real contribution. Makers can participate in a new kind of space program, one that expands beyond NASA to include commercial space collaboration.

Visit the NASA Make Challenge page on Make: Online for information on how to participate in the program and sign up for a mailing list to get more information. (The rules are still under review.) The deadline for experimental science kit submissions will be April 30, 2011. The winner of the NASA Make Challenge will be honored at this year’s Bay Area Maker Faire, and the winning kit project will be featured in MAKE magazine.