Photo: IN3

Although it has been reported that NASA shut down voting after a team of three black girls was handily winning a contest it sponsored, it appears that what happened was that someone hacked the system to take votes away from the girls, and that’s why the contest was shut down before the stated official voting window had closed.

Bria Snell, India Skinner and Mikayla Sharrieff, three students at Benjamin A. Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. (full disclosure: my alma mater, Class of ’90), entered NASA Goddard’s Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge to win a trip to the esteemed national space program in Greenbelt, Md.

The three, who volunteer at the Inclusive Innovation Incubator program in D.C., sought to create a technology that would purify public schools’ water systems through filtration jars that filter water while detecting pH imbalances.

After making it to the semifinal round, the young women were in the lead with 78 percent of the vote (which someone was kind enough to take a screenshot of) when NASA closed voting a day early to “protect the integrity of the vote.”

Although several media outlets erroneously reported that the early close was because the girls and their fans had voted too much, apparently what happened was that someone hacked into the voting system to take votes away from IN3.

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Many people online had mobilized to vote for IN3 as the leading project in support of the girls, something that was not clearly prohibited. The site’s update currently states that the competition overseers “have an accurate record of the voting results prior to the attempted disruption” and the “top three Public Choice teams in each category will be notified and recognized on the Challenge website.”

NASA released a statement, which read in part:

On Sunday, April 29, hackers attempted to change the vote totals in the NASA OPSPARC Challenge, so managers of the challenge decided to end public voting to protect the integrity of the results.

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Before the voting ended, members of the public were using social media to generate support for particular teams in the public voting. NASA supports this kind of community-based effort to encourage students to engage with science, technology, engineering and math and recognizes social media as an important tool for that support. Votes generated this way are legitimate and will be counted. Unfortunately, it was brought to NASA’s attention yesterday that 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, and the attempt to manipulate the vote occurred shortly after those posts. NASA continues to support outreach and education for all Americans, and encourages all of our children to reach for the stars.

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A representative for the parents of the teens contacted The Root and gave the following statement:

The parents of S3 are proud of the scholarly accomplishments of all the student participants. While it is unfortunate that some individuals attempted to inject negativity into this friendly competition we hold no ill will towards others.

...

We are estactic about the experience and opportunity that our daughters had in this NASA challenge.

We salute NASA and all the families involved. All of our kids are winners for their commitment to academic excellence.

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You know, when black excellence shines, it seems to blind those who would rather see it not.

We look forward to reporting on the results and will update the story when they are announced.

Editor’s note: This story was revised on May 3 to include a statement from the girls’ mothers. An earlier version of the article had a Facebook post from a site that quoted one of the moms, but a representative from IN3 sent a statement to The Root saying that the earlier one “inaccurately quoted one mother.” It further says that “the mothers are also a team and have not made any comments, negative or positive on this issue.”