NASA invites open-source partners

CosmosCode project will let open-source coders develop space exploration software

NASA’s request for quotation for open source development

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Under an upcoming project called CosmosCode, which NASA officials will announce later this month, the agency wants to invite the open-source community to help it create space exploration software. NASA’s desire for Web 2.0 collaboration software signifies the agency’s new leadership in developing open-source applications in the government.

NASA already has a core of several dozen open-source applications, a few of which match commercial software. Patrick Moran, a computer scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center’s Advanced Supercomputing division, said an example is NASA’s World Wind, which is like the much-touted Google Earth application. It can zoom in to any place on Earth and show rich details from Landsat satellite images.

But now the agency hopes to take open source even further into its mission.

To start the CosmosCode project, NASA released a request for quotations April 10 for Partnership Software that would help the agency collaborate online with entrepreneurial partners.

“This is the first time I have seen a requirement for open-source software in a procurement,” said Peter Gallagher, president of Development InfoStructure, a company that works in open source. “I am super enthused to see NASA recognize that open source is the way to go for collaboration tools. Open source will be the dominant model for e-government inside of five years.”

Applications developed under the contract will become a module in a content management system that NASA will use during a June conference at Ames. NASA will later release the software to the open-source community for further development.

Gallagher expressed concern about the compressed procurement response and delivery time. He also said using existing open-source tools might be difficult,
at least without significant development and integration of various open-source products.

The NASA Open Source Agreement, which is the agency’s open-source license, is the only government license that the Open Source Initiative includes on its list of approved licenses. Moran said the solicitation’s language shows NASA’s intent to make its interest in open-source development more explicit in its procurement solicitations.

Moran has been one of the principal proponents for the use and development of open-source software at NASA. He  published a report in 2003 that presented the technical and business arguments for NASA’s use of open-source software.

“There’s a perceived mutual benefit, certainly on the research side, “ Moran said.
In the past, that would have been done through writing papers and having those reviewed and waiting for responses and counterarguments to be published. But now, Moran said, much of what’s done in research involves the development of software. What is often needed is a way to share software with people so they can review it, make big fixes and build on it.

Although government is an increasingly avid user of open-source software such as Linux, there’s unlikely to be a rush to develop such software because of contractual difficulties, Moran said. The NASA legal office opted for the agency to have its own license instead of using an existing license, such as that written for the development of Mozilla software. One reason was that NASA had to consider the various needs of the contractors it hires, Moran said.

For those and other reasons, such as cultural resistance, Moran said, he expects open-source development to grow at NASA but not exponentially.

“When you release [open-source software] there are a lot of constituencies whose needs have to satisfied, and those have to be taken care of through explicit contract language,” he said. “That’s starting to happen, though slowly. But as more of these solicitations are written and people get more experience with them and begin to see results, I expect resistance to fade.”
What NASA wants in Web 2.0
  • Have a Participatory Exploration Summit Web site up by June 1. The vendor would provide technical support before, during and after the summit. The software would use Web 2.0 online tools, including collaborative technologies such as wikis that let users create and edit content on Web sites. The envisioned software would enable groups to initiate discussions before an off-line conference event and enhance the capture and publication of content created at an off-line conference event.
  •  Provide the software to the open-source community, including extensive documentation of the code and a step-by-step installation and configuration guide and instructions for effective use by nonprogrammers.
— Brian Robinson

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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