July 25, 2007

Rocket scientist: Outer space exploration should be open

Author: Tina Gasperson

Space enthusiast and engineer Paul Wooster wants to open the source code for outer space, because, he says, it should be easier for everyone who wants to contribute to human activities in space to do so, not just people with advanced degrees in rocketry. To that end, Wooster has established DevelopSpace, a community based on open source philosophies, designed to attract anyone interested in sharing their skills in order to make more space exploration possible.

Wooster says he is passionate about human expansion into space. He's a real rocket scientist, but he wants to erase some of the mystique surrounding that moniker. "Rocket science is seen as a very elite profession," Wooster says, "but there are a lot of things needed in order to have a human base on Mars that can be done without a lot of rocket science itself." He wants to open up opportunities for people in other professions to share what they know. "I feel there's a large set of people who would work on these things if they had an opportunity."

Before 1995, Wooster didn't even know what Linux was, let alone open source software, but during his recent tenure as a research scientist at MIT, the concepts "gradually worked their way into my consciousness," he says. "The thing that struck me was I noticed there were a lot of people who were very motivated about space -- computer programmers, car designers, and even just high school kids. I realized that the open source model is a good way of contributing to it."

Wooster says the community's core group of about 15 people bring an aerospace background to the mix, "who know how to design spacecraft, but half of them don't even know what PHP is. Right now we are looking for people who have a good understanding of the Web side of things." Wooster is working on a hosting infrastructure he says is similar to SourceForge.net -- a repository for specifications, drawings, documentation, and software -- in addition to a wiki where participants can share and discuss information.

"We're focused on building up the technical foundations of human activities in space, identifying the current barriers to those activities, and then coming up with engineered solutions to those barriers -- but doing so in an open source manner. If, for example, I design a solar-powered system for use on Mars and do some testing in the lab, rather than just writing up a paper and publishing it in a journal or a .PDF format where it's difficult to extract information, I would post all of the CAD files and the more detailed engineering analyses so someone else can come along and improve on my design -- they don't have to start from scratch. Over time, what will happen is that more and more people will get involved in these actitivies and we will make technical progress toward lowering the barriers to entry for someone who wants to set up a human base on Mars, or an orbiting outpost. I don't actually see the group in the near term doing those types of things. This is much more of laying the foundations."

Wooster says the group is flexible about the kinds of projects that it will host on DevelopSpace. "What I see happening is an organic growth, of sorts," he says. "As long as the projects are related to space, people can come along with their own projects." DevelopSpace is about providing a pre-established infrastructure for projects so that researchers not employed by large aerospace companies with existing labs and prototypes don't have to constantly start from scratch. "It's a lot easier for someone to start a new project and make progress on the real question at hand" with the proper tools already in place, Wooster says, such as plans for hardware design, circuit board layouts, drawings for life support modules, and structural analysis datasets.

Wooster doesn't expect much help from aerospace companies, whose profits are based in closely held technologies. "I don't see that many of the existing aerospace companies would want to embrace this to begin with," he says. "It's lowering the barriers to entry to their business and encourages new entrants." But government agencies like NASA may show interest. "They're more likely to come around earlier on, I would say. They don't have to worry as much about competitors -- and in many ways this thing could help them leverage the resources they do have to accomplish more. But the area I really see as the first growth area is people in universities -- there's a group of people who are supposed to be publishing their activities. And then there's the general public."

If you're interested in contributing your skills to the DevelopSpace project, visit the site and sign up.


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