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Selected Articles from the
March 2001 Odyssey

Editor: Terry Hancock

Opening Space: The SpaceLift Project

By Terry Hanncock

There are many interesting parallels between the space movement and the open-source software movement. Certainly there's plenty of open-source software for astronomy and space applications and many open-source programs were originally developed by NASA or other public organizations, which was the original reason they were released open-source.

Both communities have spent a lot of time frustrated with government or commercial "solutions" to their problems. Just substitute "NASA" for "Microsoft" and "Shuttle" for "Windows" and many disgruntled software users sound just like their space-enthusiast counterparts. For open-sourcers, the solution has been to do it themselves, little-by-little in their spare time. And curiously, they have found that this often gets the job done even faster than their commercial competition.

However - at least, so far - there's been no open-source space development movement. Why not? The biggest obstacle is that space development requires hardware as well as software. The uniquely replicatable nature of information has been used as one of the principle arguments for open-source's success, so many people are tempted to dismiss its value in any case where material goods are involved as well.

However, there are many material goods which are sufficiently "information rich" that open-source approaches work for them. Consider the LART - a popular new embedded microcomputer platform for multimedia applications. It is possible to download all the CAD/CAM files needed to make a LART from the website

This is the essence of open-hardware: although the actual manufactured product may be hardware, what you need to make it is software, which can be developed using an open-source approach. For more information about the theory of open-source and why it works in this kind of situation, I recommend reading the essays by Eric Raymond on the subject, especially The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

The space community is actually full of people who have the motivation for development, as the NSS chapter projects of the Oregon L5 Society, the Lunar Reclamation Society, and the Huntsville NSS chapter have demonstrated with various small-scale space projects. However, these projects often have little effect, because they can only draw on local help and because the information collected from these projects is too often lost when the project developers move on to other things. That makes it difficult to build on previous projects.

The open-source community has had these problems too, and being programmers, they have come up with some good solutions. One of the best are internet project incubators, like Source Forge which provide a range of services for collaborating online on software: web servers, ftp servers, and especially, concurrent versioning system (cvs) servers, which provide the essential technology for keeping track of all the changes to project documents made by numerous developers all working on the files together over the internet.

Since the software that runs the Source Forge internet site is also open-source, this raises the possibility of setting up an internet project incubator dedicated to space development. The simplest form of this is to simply run the Source Forge software on our own servers, allowing us to collaborate on planning and designing. However, it would be possible to devise a system for decreasing the difficulty of purchasing and/or contracting hardware as well, using technology based on electronic auctioning systems.

In this way, projects can use the rapid-prototyping, bottom-up design approach that has become the prevalent mode of development for open-source software. Development fuels development: once small problems are solved, it becomes possible (and fun) to tackle bigger ones. Gradually, the projects snowball, acquiring momentum from each other and allowing more and more ambitious projects to be tackled.

I doubt we'll build any launch vehicles this way, but there's a whole lot of other things that need work too: regolith processing and construction methods, solar cell micro-manufacturing, oxygen extraction, effective biospheric systems, water cycling, small landers and orbital-transfer vehicles, communications and navigation systems, and spacesuits and life-support systems, and so on.

All of these projects could be facilitated by an online project incubator dedicated to space development. Such a system would be unencumbered by the fierce political or economic pressures that have previously made space development such a battlefield. They would be dedicated to precisely the goals that we as space advocates want - because we'd be the ones doing it. The force directing development is simply the interest of those willing and competent enough to do the development.

There's also no need to fear the competition of the various groups within the space community: the Moon first, Mars first, asteroids first argument becomes immaterial; The National Space Society, Space Frontier Foundation, Moon Society, and Mars Society need not all agree on a single course of development or objective. Open-source thrives on a diversity of opinions and approaches. All we need do is provide good soil, and the seeds will take care of themselves.

The system would provide a way to give interested students and space enthusiasts a chance to participate in space development, actually doing something about their future, instead of simply watching. It would test out lots of risky new ideas that wouldn't get funded by NASA or commercial companies. It would provide market opportunities for small manufacurers and/or independent purchasing agents. But most of all, it would start working on all the little technologies that will be needed for space settlers - and which might not otherwise get developed, especially in the light of recent events.

So, coming to this conclusion, I did what any sensible open-source developer would do - I started a project at Source Forge. That's SpaceLift - the project to build the above-described system and find an interested group or groups to handle the overhead costs of running it. There are many technical problems to be solved to actually deploy such a system, and perhaps a lot of advocacy to get enough space enthusiasts convinced of what it could accomplish to make it happen.

The address of the SpaceLift discussion group is

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 2.25.
On 31 Mar 2001, 14:54.