As part of the administration’s new 3.8 trillion budget (that is with a T, not a B guys. Really big number.), a radical change in NASA’s mission is proposed. If President Obama has his way, NASA will stop being the operator and builder of our space vehicles and program. The US space program will be placed in the hands of private industry. The government will try to steer the private space industry with grants and technology development projects. This could be a great environment and opportunity for an open source space program.
Of course this is a huge departure for the NASA we have known. For the past 50 years NASA has been the designer, builder and operator of our space program. The space race and the race to the Moon were national goals to strive for. In later years, NASA’s mission became more cooperative with other world powers in projects such as the International Space Station and missions to the planets. Then President George W. Bush announced a return to the Moon by 2020. Many experts said it was pie in the sky and would never happen in that time frame, but nevertheless we spent almost 9 billion dollars to date on this mission. Now if the Obama administration has their way we are scrapping it. As a child of the Apollo program, I am dismayed that we can’t even come close to accomplishing something that we were able to do 40 years ago. Have we fallen that far?
Alan Boyle over on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log has a great synopsis of how and why the space program is being turned over to the “commercial boys” and who some of those players are. But there is another player. A dark horse if you will, that could be coming up fast on the outside.
The Open Luna Foundation has a plan to use open source software and hardware and most importantly an open source community methodology to put a permanent outpost on the Moon. They estimate that they will have to raise 500 to 700 million dollars to pull this off. By selling tourism and moon souvenirs they hope to raise the bulk of this money. They are also looking for donations and volunteers. If you think you have the right stuff head on over. I have included a slide presentation to give you some details on Open Luna. But here are some highlights of their approach:
- All aspects of the mission plan and hardware will be open source. This information will be publicly available and community support and involvement will be actively pursued and welcomed.
- Special efforts will be made to involve students, educational facilities, and amateur space enthusiasts.
- A strong media presence will be a priority. The entertainment and educational potential of the mission will be exploited to allow the mission to reach the maximum number of people possible. This furthers the educational potential of the mission, provides publicity for sponsors (which will encourage support for future missions), and demonstrates to people that this is possible in the present and inspires the next generation to continue and exceed these mission goals.
- Mission hardware will be light and geared toward continuity from one mission to future missions. This will save costs and simplify the mission and hardware development. Superfluous hardware will be removed from missions and each component will be made in the lightest fashion possible. This may create initial complications, but it will balance out over the span of the program. Risk levels will be assessed and considered to balance risk with the cost of safety to the ability of the mission to continue forward.
- Much like an Alpine expedition, moderate risks will be acceptable in favor of exploration.
- Access to all scientific data and acceptance of outside research proposals will be encouraged.
They currently have a 5 mission plan. I am sure this and other aspects of the plan will change. But that is what they are proposing right now.
So why do I think open source could be a winning strategy for a successful return to the moon? Mostly for the same reasons why it took a government to get us there in the first place. I think pure science like going to the moon without a certain profit will not be sustainable in a traditional commercial program. Now some may say that if it is not commercially viable it shouldn’t be undertaken. But sometimes you have to do things for adventure and discovery, without knowing what the exact pay off will be. More often than not though, where there is new discovery, there is new opportunity. It spawns new technology and innovation. I envision using software and systems based on open source software that will save significant dollars in license costs, but more importantly allow for the rapid development of new applications and features that will be required for the mission. Of course some of the hardware (rockets) will be commercially available models. But I am counting on Open Luna to spur development of new designs for crew compartments, living quarters and open source design for the permanent moon station. I think a vibrant community will give Open Luna the edge for government grants and incentives.
There are an inordinate amount of space enthusiasts in the IT industry. I think a well organized open source space project could attract a super community of volunteers and developers to accelerate the technology needed in the shortest, cheapest and most efficient manner.
Maybe software will not be the zenith of open source usefulness. Maybe the true future of open source lies in the stars, “going where no commercial software has gone before.”
Here is Open Luna's slide show: