NASA Makes Space for Open Source Software

by Ostatic Staff - May. 11, 2009

Space Shuttle Atlantis launched today on its way to the final Hubble telescope repair mission. There's an old joke originally quipped by astronaut Wally Schirra that NASA spacecraft really is a modern marvel, especially when you consider it's built by the lowest bidders. It's the government's tight purse strings, however, that has helped open source software put its fingerprints all over the space agency.

NASA says it has four main reasons for promoting the use and development of open source software:

* To increase NASA software quality via community peer review
* To accelerate software development via community contributions
* To maximize the awareness and impact of NASA research
* To increase dissemination of NASA software in support of NASA's education mission

NASA's CosmosCode program, launched in 2007, brings open source developers together to create space exploration software. It also opens the door for individual coders to get involved in the space industry and a offers a way for space companies to partner with NASA to develop mutually beneficial software. The CosmoCode project is currently open for internal alpha testing and looking for volunteers.

To aid in software development, NASA created CoLab, a blend of virtual and physical coworking environments. Since community members are spread out all over the globe, a lot of collaboration activity takes place on a private island in Second Life, a virtual world built around an open source framework. NASA even has its own OSI-approved software license, the NASA Open Source Agreement, to apply to software created for the agency.

NASA's Ames Research Center recently developed a bug tracker written with open source Bugzilla tools. The Problem Reporting Analysis and Corrective Action (PRACA) system provides a single trouble ticket database that's available to everyone involved in the Shuttle program, clearly a better solution than the 40 different databases it has amassed over the last 30 years.

Open source software played a critical role in the Mars Rover program, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux turns up all over NASA, from the computers streaming spacecraft video to the server managing its mission countdown clock.In fact, Red Hat Community Engineer Jack Aboutboul got a behind the scenes look at just how prevalent open source is at NASA. Space junkies beware, the photos will make you green with envy.