Some NASA software could soon be open-source

NASA, a big user of open-source software, is crafting a software license to release some of its programs to open-source users. The results could improve NASA's own software and promote its mission.

A team of NASA intellectual-property attorneys is drafting the agreement for release early this summer. The attorneys in February submitted a draft to the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit governing body for accreditation of open-source standards.

'I think any of the general benefits of open-source development would also benefit NASA,' said Gary Borda, one of the attorneys. 'A community of software developers could identify problems, fix bugs and enhance the software. It would save NASA time and money in that we are getting the contributions of others.'

Under licensing agreements such as the GNU General Public License, at www.gnu.org, users can freely exchange open-source code and even sell it, but any modified programs available to the public must have their source code available, too.

Advocates say open-source software cumulatively improves because multiple people are debugging its code. Open source also lessens NASA's reliance on commercial software vendors that might go out of business or stop supporting products.

Although the space agency's agreement draws boilerplate language from open-source licenses such as GNUs, it also has original language to meet the agency's specific needs, said Bryan Geurts, another NASA attorney. It indemnifies against liabilities arising from third-party use, and it requests voluntary reports of software usage for tracking purposes.

Not all NASA-funded software will be subject to the license. 'We will determine this on a case-by-case basis,' Borda said.

NASA in 1997 established an agencywide policy for the public release of its software. The policy specifies that program managers must report all software developed by or for the agency so that it can be evaluated for wider release.

If the software proves suitable for public release, the agency evaluates what rights the government has, whether the software meets export control requirements, and what potential uses it might have in other agencies and commercially. Also, a form of copyright or a patent might be necessary.

'Open-source release will be a new option under that established policy,' Borda said.

Some of NASA's software is mission-specific and not useful to the public. But Padilla pointed to an educational program called WorldWind as one application that might benefit from wider exposure. WorldWind has interactive, 3-D planetary imagery, and the user can embed information at specific geographic locations.

NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., is setting up a pilot site to disseminate open-source programs such as WorldWind, Padilla said.

NASA also offers a free, downloadable Maestro version of the software it uses to guide the Mars rovers. If such software falls under the open-source agreement, advanced users could add features that NASA itself could then use.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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