Pierce County middle schoolers cheered as they watched a robot that they helped program pick up items floating in the International Space Station.
"Honestly, it was mind blowing," said Lavina Polk from Destiny Charter Middle School in Tacoma.
The "Puget Sounders" was one of 13 U.S. and Russian teams in the Zero Robotics competition finals.
The young people were challenged to program robots known as SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) inside the International Space Station.
This year the teams were asked to make the robots grab as many floating objects as possible in zero or microgravity.
"The kids got five weeks to train and experiment with a graphical simulator, which has on-screen elements that look rather like a puzzle, and that have their movements translated into computer code," said Joseph Colón, who works with the University of Puget Sound program where the Puget Sounders studied science and math this summer.
NASA astronaut Jack Fischer tested all of the teams' programs by using the real SPHERES robots on the ISS to grab objects in microgravity. The most successful team's program wins.
The Puget Sounders watched the competition, which was live from the ISS, from Seattle's Museum of Flight. Although the local favorites didn't come out on top, Polk appreciated what she learned while developing the program.
"I think it's going to help me go to where I want in life," said Polk, who has added computer programmer to the possible jobs she'll pursue after graduating.
Creating the programs was a learning experience, but it could also be practical in a real scenario, such as programming robots to pick up spacecraft spare parts or broken satellite pieces floating in space and bringing them back to the ISS.