April 7, 2014 AT 9:00 am

Wanna Build a Rocket? NASA’s About to Give Away a Mountain of Its Code


This Thursday, NASA will release an extensive software catalogue to the public as a part of the government’s push towards transparency, via Wired:

This NASA software catalog will list more than 1,000 projects, and it will show you how to actually obtain the code you want. The idea to help hackers and entrepreneurs push these ideas in new directions — and help them dream up new ideas. Some code is only available to certain people — the rocket guidance system, for instance — but if you can get it, you can use it without paying royalties or copyright fees. Within a few weeks of publishing the list, NASA says, it will also offer a searchable database of projects, and then, by next year, it will host the actual software code in its own online repository, a kind of GitHub for astronauts.

It’s all part of a White House-directed push to open up the federal government, which is the country’s largest creator of public domain code, but also a complete laggard when it comes to sharing software. Three years ago, President Obama ordered federal agencies to speed up tech transfer programs like this. And while the feds have been slow, the presidential directive is starting to bear fruit. In February, DARPA published a similar catalog, making it easier for entrepreneurs to get ahold of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s code too.

NASA has run a technology transfer program for over 50 years. It has given us everything from the Dustbuster to Giro bicycle helmets to “space rose,” a unique perfume scent forged in zero-Gs. But it’s high time the agency actively pushed out its software code as well. Increasingly, NASA’s research and development dollars are paying for software, says Daniel Lockney, Technology Transfer Program Executive with NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist. “About a third of everything we invent ends up being software these days,” he says.

Already, NASA software has been used to do some pretty amazing stuff outside the agency. In 2005, marine biologists adapted the Hubble Space Telescope’s star-mapping algorithm to track and identify endangered whale sharks. That software has now been adapted to track polar bears in the arctic and sunfish in the Galapagos Islands. “Our design software has been used to make everything from guitars to roller coasters to Cadillacs,” Lockney says. “Scheduling software that keeps the Hubble Space Telescope operations straight has been used for scheduling MRIs at busy hospitals and as control algorithms for online dating services.”

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