back to article Google to NASA: Open source will not kill you

Google open source guru Chris DiBona has called on NASA to use more open source code in its aerospace program, urging the government agency to test free software in unmanned flights and "blow-up some robots." "I've heard people say: 'We don't want to endanger flights. We don't want to endanger lives. Open source software comes …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    Please crawl back into to your hole now, Mr. Google mouthpiece.

    "What you need to do is blow-up some robots"

    Right... If you want to front the couple hundred million dollars to produce a robot, I'm sure NASA would be happy to skip most of the software testing so you can have an exploding robot. I think I'm happy having my tax dollars spent to run those extra checks so that a few less robots blow up.

    "You have to make sure it provides utility and security and the 'bug-free-ed-ness' you're looking for."

    It sounds like that's exactly what they're doing. They've decided most open source software isn't the least bit relevant to robotics and thus should be excluded. The rest needs to be vetted just as hard as something written in house. And I'll bet vetting in house built software is a whole lot easier to do and ends up integrating with the whole project better.

    "We are being too conservative as a community in not releasing software that is simply geometry. It's simply trigonometry. It's simply calculus."

    Right... cause the guy that thought up the phrase, "It's not rocket science" was just an idiot that had never heard of calculus... Robotics is a whole lot more than "just" geometry. Have to write all that driver code to interact with the motors and sensors. Have to write all sorts of code to process the data. Have to write algorithms to decide what the robot should do. God forbid the robot act even semi-autonomously... Want to limit that to rockets? Still have to deal with drivers and plans. Leaving a rocket/space ship/satellite/robot on autopilot to process its plan will also require detecting and adapting to errors in trajectory.

    "Isn't it the major goal of software and aerospace to do good things?"

    Really? I thought the major goal of software was to make money. That certainly seems to be what Google uses it for. And the major goal of aerospace seems to be to kill people and blow stuff up... But maybe I'm just a wee bit too cynical...

    I think I'm happy if NASA takes the time to make sure things go right when they only have one shot at any given project. Does that mean they shouldn't use any OSS? No, but that also doesn't mean they should be trying to find ways to shoehorn it into every project like some psychotic fanboy either.

    1. Annihilator

      Agree entirely

      I also chortle at the contradiction that he encourages taking more risks, but blames things going wrong on closed-source software.

      From the studies I've seen, NASA have one of the best software and hardware engineering methodologies in the world. The mistakes that they make genuinely are few and far between and often occur when a human overlord ignores the rules.

      Most OSS, while still very good, will be nowhere near the standard required when it comes to NASAs requirements. OSS has the ability to make iterative progressions towards perfection (and is a core part of the methodology) which flies in the face of what NASA needs.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great idea, let's use Honeycomb!

    Because NASA could use Android 3.0 Honeycomb for their space stuff. It's great, even says it's open source on the webpage so it should be a doodle.

    Let's see:

    mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git:// ; repo sync ; make

    [long time goes on]

    Shit all this junk but no Honeycomb? DiBona!!!!

  3. Martyn Ranyard

    Practice what you preach?

    Being an opensource advocate is one thing, I applaud the stance, but on the heels of the "not open, yet!" announcement, is extremely bad form.

    There are small tablet manufacturers out there who won't get android 3.0 because their tablets have 2.2 and because they are not in "the gang" - and teams of experts over on xda who want to get working on it too but can't.

    So really, if I were NASA I'd be saying to google "sort your own backyard out before telling us ours is a mess."

  4. Spanners Silver badge

    The point is

    With open source, we know exactly where the software comes from. We have the code.

    With closed source software, we have no clue where it comes from - other than some corporation somewhere. If you are paranoid about your systems, the only software you can use is open source. You don't let anyone else provide your binaries - they could be anything.

    1. Tom 38 Silver badge


      What a load of balls. NASA don't put things in the sky without source code. It's just they don't give the source code away.

      Closed source != binary. It just means you cannot distribute the source code.

      1. Marcus Aurelius

        If NASA adopted open source

        Would they have to attach a CD of the source code to the next Mars Rover/ Deep space satellite?

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    NASA can produce crummy hardware-destroying software all on its own

    without any help from Google

  6. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Fcuking Hell ...... Now what ? [Please excuse the vernacular, but it is apt in this APT case?]

    "Google open source guru Chris DiBona has called on NASA to use more open source code in its aerospace program, urging the government agency to test free software in unmanned flights and "blow-up some robots.""

    Yes, well, methinks it is advisable to suggest that forays and squirmishes by gung-ho newbies, just like the likes of a Google and/or a Google open source guru Chris DiBona, into the sector which is responsible for creative command and remote control of SMARTer SpaceD robots*, will find them better equipped than is ever going to be openly revealed, for all the very obvious reasons of Cosmic security, with extremely novel defenses and innovative protections against programs which are just software with malicious bugs and dodgy code with instructions to "blow-up some robots."

    An alternative dynamic approach, in a constructive kinetic root algorithm, for any with an honest engaging interest in Sensitive and Sensational Space Program Development with Virtual Flight Deck Deployment of Programmer Robots, would surely be to blow some robots, for it has proven itself to work wonders on a whole host of other Virtual Machines.

    *SMARTer SpaceD robots are programmed also to understandD ....

    "DiBona advocated a freer exchange of information between the US and foreign space programs. "I know this is the wrong thing to say, but when I see the major mistakes made by space agencies the world over ... I think 'Is that something that could be avoided [if we share software]? Isn't it the major goal of software and aerospace to do good things?"" ..... Quite so, Chris, but you'll get nowhere fast if you confine and condemn yourself to just those few places and studiously ignore Alien SpaceD Programs.

    ""Isn't it the major goal of software and aerospace to do good things?"

    Really? I thought the major goal of software was to make money. That certainly seems to be what Google uses it for. And the major goal of aerospace seems to be to kill people and blow stuff up... But maybe I'm just a wee bit too cynical..." ..... Anonymous Coward Posted Wednesday 30th March 2011 23:01 GMT

    Does a combination of them both create an explosive mix which blows up the money system? Or protects it with IT and Virtual Control of Space Commands? And that would not be at all cynical or metaphorical if revolutionary and elementary Watson programming .......

  7. mstargard


    K, now I'm confused. Isn't NASA the outfit that coined the phrase "It ain't software without the source code"? Damn. That just changes everything.

  8. Sentient

    So we can copy your headers

    and create rocket 2.0 by adding adds.

    or am I missing something?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    NASA does use open source and does so for a long time

    I'm not sure what DiBona has been smoking this time but NASA uses plenty of open source. In fact I recall an incident where TV cameras captured an unlicensed version of the venerable XV graphics viewer (it's an odd combination of open source shareware) being used on one of the mission control computers.

    This was even before Google existed!

  10. Rob Moir

    If you're confused

    then it is because you believe every bit of nonsense that dribbles out of the mouths of google spokespeople. Stop doing that. Really.

    Two issues:

    1) Just because software is not open source, it does not mean that the source code isn't available to the right customer. And NASA would be the "right customer" if they wanted to be. Hell, Microsoft will let you look at the source for Windows under the right circumstances.

    2) If it's important for everything to be open source, then where do I download the source code for the latest version of android? Or the algorithms for the latest version of google's search?

  11. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Er, NASA are already quite heavy users of open source in their Mars landers.

    There is an article about it where they outline where it fits in.

    IIRC it incudes stuff like mySQL for data management but specialized stuff for logic analysis and schedule planning (when it takes 30 mins to send the commands to Mars and another 30 to see if they've actually worked you want to be *very* sure they don't interact in some subtle but totally destructive way).

    NASA does use open source. Just because they are not mainstream packages most people have heard of is not their problem.

  12. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Heres some I found earlier

    while (bConspiracyTheory){



  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Is there a straw man in the room - in one sentence, he acknowledges that they already use lots of open source software, and I'd imagine particularly in the data analysis side.

    A whole lot of vague pronouncements that imply Nasa is open-source hostile, rather than specific examples of specific systems.

    Or does he mean that they should go wholly open source? (Which is a bit rich coming from a company that hides it's most significant source code).

    Or is it the usual religious idiocy that thinks it's worth spending $500,000 moving some massive system from DB2 to postgres, just because DB2 is 'proprietary'.

  14. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Blow up some robots?

    No thanks. Not when getting to Mars is so damn risky and incredibly expensive in the first place. I'd much rather my Mars robots last 20x their expected lifetime, please.

    I know a few NASA guys, and they're able to decide when and where to use open source without any stupid advice from loudmouth Google folks.

    He does have a really amazing level of ignorance and hubris, doesn't he?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The assersion that we should just do away with the "not exporting arms" regulations, wrt software suggests that he doesn't really have any idea about the implications of releasing the kind of software NASA develops, or indeed, what it is and could be used for in the wrong hands.

  16. Tom 13

    If Chris wants to see robots blown up,

    he needs to watch more of Adam and Jamie.

  17. vincent himpe

    too bad

    there is little open source written in ada ...

  18. kain preacher

    google earth

    I wounder were they get their data from?

    Google: NASA you need to make us money

    NASA: Why

    Google: if not we will bad mouth.

    NASA: falls out laughing. You think the nerds,geeks and science will believe you over us .

    Google: They might.

    NASA: Snickers yep and MS might become the worlds largest supplier of free OS.

  19. Bob Camp

    Not anytime soon

    NASA uses VxWorks for most of their needs. It's better than Linux in real-time embedded environments. It has real technical support. And it meets all government regulations regarding software security and programming standards. The OS programmers are limited to one company, and background checks can be performed on everyone. How on Earth could you verify that no "bad guys" ever inserted a single character in open-source code?

    The only reason NASA would switch to Linux is if their budget were severely cut. Even then, it would take a lot of time (and money) to port all that code over and integrate it. And they would be breaking a golden rule -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

  20. Herby

    It goes back a LONG way

    If you remember the 60's (if you were there, you might not), the spooler for OS/360 was HASP (Houston Automatic Spooling Program), developed by NASA ans spread all over the world.

    Those who forget history are bound to repeat its errors.

    Maybe Google should open source its ranking algorithm? (Fat chance!).

  21. DrJoel

    NASA Uses Open Source in Space


    I know Chris can't be up to date on everything but I am surprised he forgot about RTEMS ( We have been a Google Summer of Code project the past 4 years

    which is sponsored by his own office. We are used in many NASA and ESA space missions including MMS, SDO, Herschel, Planck, Lisa Pathfinder, Electra, Dawn, Express Logistics Carrier (ELC) and will even be on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). We are also popular in other big science projects including high energy physics projects and observatories.

    Open source does not mean untested or unqualified for the missions. It is a serious effort and expense to do a space mission and nothing is going in without a thorough review.


  22. NoneSuch Silver badge


    Making the robots more intelligent is JUST what the Zombies are waiting for. We will be too busy fighting terminators to notice the waves of undead until it is too late.

    Save us Microsoft with your closed door, proprietary designs. Then the robots will be too busy suffering BSOD's and we can deal with the minions of the crypt with plenty of ammo!

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