As many of you probably are aware, the plot of the new movie The Martian is centered around Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney trying to survive on Mars long enough to be rescued after the other members of his expeditionary crew were forced to leave or be stranded. Mark, and later NASA, struggled to use the things that were left behind to keep him alive. All of the hardware, things like the rovers and life support systems, were portrayed as things that NASA designed and built themselves, and no one else had all the nitty gritty details about their design and function.
But what if even some of these things were Open Source, so that anyone in the world could look at the plans to build them? Or even better, build their own? In the movie, NASA and Mark did a heroic job of finding solutions to the problems, but if the hardware was all Open Source, engineers outside of NASA would have been able to aid them. Perhaps the nearly fatal explosion of the resupply mission wouldn’t have happened? Other engineers might have identified the flaws and brought them to NASA’s attention. Or perhaps the men and women at JPL would have been able to get more things done quicker, without so much stress and overtime, because of the larger community lending them their support.
Open Source Hardware isn’t a panacea to all problems, but it opens up a lot of opportunities that don’t exist when the designs live behind closed doors. Most things have been developed in this closed source way in the past. With incredibly complexly engineered things like rockets and habitats for Mars, the level of effort to make those things a reality creates a tremendous barrier for others to build on what’s already been done. If even some of these things that organizations like NASA build had their designs and build procedures open to the wider community, or even the public, to view, use, and build upon, the community can not only help each other out when there’s a problem, but build better solutions and accelerate the pace of progress.