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How Many NASA Employees Does it Take to Light a Bulb?
By: Denise Lineberry

It started with a ringing alarm clock and ended with a tiny light bulb. Once the bulb was lit, it signified success for the four teams that participated in NASA Langley's Rube Goldberg Challenge.

Rube Goldberg was a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, sculptor and author. Each year in the U.S., Rube Goldberg Inc. hosts a contest to create a comical and complicated invention to do something as simple as turning on a light.

When Pam Payne of the Strategic Relationships Office saw videos of these types of machines during the "Enhancing Your Creative Genius Course," she also saw an opportunity for the creative minds at NASA Langley.

"NASA is the perfect place for this type of challenge," Payne said. "And with it being Creativity and Innovation Week, it just seemed to fit and click."

NASA Langley's Rube Goldberg Challenge.
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How better to design a complex machine to do a simple task than to do it by committee? Four groups combined to build this for NASA Langley's Rube Goldberg Challenge. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Four team captains were chosen. They connected with others at NASA Langley to create teams. And within two weeks of thir initial meeting, inventions were put to the test in Langley’s cafeteria.

Each team was responsible for a section of the overall machine. When they came together earlier in the week, they had minimal time to figure out how one section would interface with the next.

The only rules were no electricity, no liquids and no animals. That’s why the concluding light bulb was battery-powered.

Within the invention were a bicycle wheel, a dinosaur, falling confetti, marbles, a ladder, a singing fish and a space shuttle that zipped across a line.

It appeared to be an oversized version of the children’s game, Mouse Trap. Instead of a cage falling onto a mouse, the finale’ was a miniature, foam astronaut sliding down a ramp into the bulb, lighting it.

NASA Langley's Rube Goldberg Challenge.
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The light bulb turns on, signifying that the entry in NASA Langley's Rube Goldberg Challenge is a success. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Three judges watched the machine in action along with dozens of onlookers who were attracted by the commotion or the promotion of the event.

As Charlie Dunton explained to the crowd, "They will judge in four categories: most diverse, creative use of material, most innovative solution and best team spirit."

As soon as the alarm clock went off the "Woo's" sounded out from the crowd as the teams chanted for their own team and others.

"We all came together and helped each other, despite the competitiveness of it all," said Kim Keith, member of Team Two.

After all, there were four teams, but the 24 individuals all had one goal: to make a tiny light shine.

The Engineering Directorate sponsored NASA Langley's Rube Goldberg Challenge. The winning teams will be announced on April 28 at the We Are NASA Langley event being held in the Reid Conference Center.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman