Space software: NASA's final frontier
By Aleksandra Pawlik, Agent and PhD student at the Open University.
Despite the fact that NASA is a government organisation, most of its software is not subject to mandatory disclosure under the American Freedom of Information Act. Regardless of this fact, NASA recognised - partially due to pressure from its own researchers - that its scientific software could be of great value to the public. This includes a number of open-source software packages and software released under commercial licence.
NASA's open-source software ranges from WorldWind, a user-friendly application to “zoom from satellite altitude into any place on Earth”, to Livingstone2, a highly-specialized artificial-intelligence software system, to grid-infrastructure management packages such as IPG and Swim.
The NASA Open Source Agreement (NOSA) was produced in 2003. It has since been approved by the Open Source Initiative, (although not by the Free Software Foundation due to a restriction in the NOSA which states that a contributor’s modification must be an original creation). An interesting issue arose when NOSA was produced: there was no copyright to licence! Any work produced for the US Government is not eligible for U.S. Copyright protection, and this includes software. However, NOSA came up with a workaround, which relies on the developer claiming the copyright to the work and then assigning its ownership to NASA.
NASA has increasingly recognised the benefits of its open-source scheme, which led to the first NASA Open Source Summit in March 2011. The summit focused on the challenges posed by the NASA open-source policy and boasted keynote speakers from various open source companies, such as Mozilla, RedHat, GitHub, Google and IBM. The summit was a true open event. It allowed virtual participation to anyone through live streaming, electronic discussion, and collaborative note taking. Most of the materials from the summit are available on the NASA website.
Some of NASA's software is released under a commercial scheme, which is overseen by the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office located in Johnson Space Center in Houston. A list of software under the commercial scheme is available on their website. A description of each software package is provided along with potential wider applicability in different industrial domains. Some of the software packages available are SINDA/FLUINT, for designing and analysing heat transfer and fluid flow models, and COPERNICUS, which provides a generalised methodology for designing spacecraft trajectories. The scientific software which was already commercialised can be browsed in the spinoff online database, which contains dozens of entries starting from the late 1970s.
Although NASA's open-source scheme was launched only relatively recently, it's getting a lot of attention. It will be interesting to see whether the open-source scheme will marginalise its commercial one. NOSA was produced in response to requests from NASA's researchers, but it seems that general scientific lobbying for open science will be the driving force for further increasing NASA’s open source offering.
Posted by Simon Hettrick on Wednesday 19 September 2012.