NASA Suspends Public Voting For OPSPARC Challenge Over Racial Attacks

NASA Suspends Public Voting For OPSPARC Challenge Over Racial Attacks
Image Source: Mikayla Sharrieff / Twitter (screenshot)

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has announced that they have closed public voting for the OPSPARC challenge due to “malicious hacking attempts to change the vote.” As it turns out, 4chan hackers had launched a massive cyber attack to stop a trio of African-American teenage girls from winning the OPSPARC competition. The three girls were one of the eight finalists in the challenge.

The teenage girls – Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner, and Bria Snell of Banneker High School in Washington DC – were the only all-black, all-girl finalists in the competition. Their project focused on providing clean water in public schools. It involved creating a sensor to detect impurities such as copper, chlorine, and bromine, and then using a filtration bottle to purify the water supply in a continuous cycle.

NASA’s OPSPARC challenge is organized by the Goddard Space Flight Center. It encourages students from grades 3 to 12 to find “spinoff” technology that is useful in everyday life from inventions that were originally created for NASA missions. The water purification system that the trio of African-American girls created was based on a 1994 technology that the space agency had created to develop automatic pool filters.

Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner, and Bria Snell opted to work on this project because the water fountains in their own school were unusable due to contamination. They were one of the eight finalist teams in the Grades 9-12 division of the challenge. NASA allows members of the public to use social media to generate support for their favorite teams. The space agency supports community participation as it encourages students to engage with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Social media is an important tool for generating support. The Goddard Space Flight Center said it had an accurate record of the voting results prior to the attack by hackers. The hackers on 4chan attacked the African-American girls primarily because of their race to ruin their chances of winning the OPSPARC challenge.

The hackers used racial epithets and argued that the girls reached the finals only because of social media support. They added that the black community was voting for them only because of their race rather than on the basis of the merit of their project. Some of the hackers even urged others to vote against the girls. The 4chan attackers also encouraged people to download a program that could interfere with NASA’s voting.

NASA was eventually forced to shut down the public voting to maintain the integrity of the competition. The space agency said in a statement, “Some members of the public used social media, not to encourage students and support STEM, but to attack a particular student team based on their race and encouraged others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote.” The attempts to manipulate the votes began “shortly after those posts.”

Now that public voting has been suspended, a panel of judges at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will determine the winners using rubrics. The results will be announced later this month.

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