Tag Archives: Why Open Source

How could Open Source Hardware have helped Mark Watney?

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.

The Martian OverlookBut 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.

Open Source Development: From Software to Space

OSHW Logo - credit the Open Source Hardware Association

OSHW Logo – credit the Open Source Hardware Association

It should come as no surprise that Mach 30 board members and volunteers have spent countless hours researching and discussing the value of open source in spaceflight.  After all, open source development is one of Mach 30’s core values.  It shows up in our mission statement and even has its own dedicated resource page on our website.    

Open source spaceflight is also one of the key ways new volunteers come to find Mach 30.  Such is the case with Matt Maier, an active voice in the Open Source Hardware movement.  Matt first approached Mach 30 during his graduate studies in space operations having found us courtesy of Google.  Matt’s research focus was on the potential for open source development to reduce the cost of space hardware as it has in other technical fields.  For months Matt, Greg Moran (Mach 30’s vice president), and I emailed back and forth about open source spaceflight.  And, this past spring Matt and I got to meet in person at the Open Source Hardware Doc Jam.  Since then, Matt has joined Mach 30’s Export Control Task Force where he has made invaluable contributions.

Last month Matt was gracious enough to share the results of his graduate research with Mach 30 at an On Air Hangout on November 14, 2013.  His presentation brought up a number of new and existing lines of discussion and is a great example of how important it is to bring fresh perspectives to the table.  Check out the Hangout’s video below (jump to 5:10 for the start of Matt’s presentation or to 12:10 for the discussion after) or review the slides and his report linked at the bottom of the post.

Thanks, Matt for an excellent presentation and for all of your contributions to Mach 30!

ad astra per civitatem – to the stars through community

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Gravitas at Mach 30

Gravitas (n.) – An ancient Roman virtue that denotes seriousness and dignity. It encompasses the depth of knowledge and/or personality that comes with experience. A very old word, but a modern circumstance.

So, how do you decide who’s got it all together in a field of endeavour as broad as ‘Space’? In any situation, you look for the survivors. Those who’ve been in the ‘game’ the longest with the most success. In something as new as the Open Source Space Movement, it can be a little more difficult. This is because a good web presence or a flashy marketing video can imply credence, sometimes more than actual content can. You have to dig past the ‘vaporware’ to find the real foundations. Another telltale sign is the language. Not the difference between German or Swedish or English, but the language of the non-tech, the space enthusiast, and the astronautical engineer.

Open Source is a confusing maze for newcomers. It is a difficult paradigm to wrap the brain around when all of your existence has been cocooned in a proprietary existence. Add “Space” to that and life gets interesting. Out of the 754,000,000 hits on a search engine, where do you start? What values, what gravitas do you look for? How does this relate to Mach 30?


Here are some of the things that we have done to promote gravitas.

Organizational maturity:

  • Mach 30 is a 501(c)(3) public charity. We’ve built a solid foundational base on which we established the organization, with the IRS paperwork to prove it
  • Strong business processes including openly shared documentation, meeting minutes, strategic plans, etc.  These provide transparency.
  • We seek out like minded organization and work with other non-profits, makers spaces, government entities, and the broader aerospace industry.

Technological stepping stone approach

  • Being biased towards mature technology means we can build and test now.
  • Having learned from the misatkes of others, we avoid the “death spiral” of giant development projects that will cost large fortunes.
  • Pursuing a technology “Road Map” development plan instead of jumping-in to shiny and fun projects
  • Tackling the true barrier to safe, sustainable, routine, and reliable spaceflight:  Namely affordable and reusable spacelift.

Open hardware development and Open Design Engine

  • True open source hardware projects (space-related or otherwise) need to share their WHOLE project, from inception to disposal.  Mach 30 does this on ODE.
  • In fact, Mach 30 is responsible for the development and operations of the opendesignengine.net because we identified this as an unfulfilled need, then filled it.  
  • Mach 30 conducts its work using open systems engineering processes.  Open source hardware development with distributed collaboration is different, as we’ve learned from past projects.

Identified need to deal with Export Controls, ITAR and more

  • Working to understand Export Controls
  • Having an Export Control Task Force
  • Meeting regularly to expand our knowledge and compliance of Export Controls

Each of these works combine to build gravitas. We’ve been at this for four years. We ask ourselves these questions frequently, “Are we doing this right?” “Are we true to our vision?” “Is this right/correct/needed?”. We strive to complete our goals. We work to make our little corner of the Open Source Space Movement a little better each day. We don’t have all the answers, but we are willing to share what we know.

Mach 30 is gaining gravitas, little by little. Each conference we attend, every event we hold, and every failure we review and improve upon adds to that weight. We are by no means perfect, but well will continue to work towards bringing humanity into a spacefairing civilization.

~ ad astra per civitatem ~
to the stars through community

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Ask a silly question…

Well, I’m back at ISPCS again, one of my favorite conferences about spaceflight.  And this year I am joined by Greg Moran, Mach 30’s vice president.  One of the first day’s panels concerned intellectual property as business assets.  Just as the panel was about to start, Greg asked me if I was going to ask the panel a question about open source hardware.  My response was “of course not, I learned a long ago bringing up open source in large sessions like this doesn’t work.”  Well, this panel showed me I hadn’t learned that lesson as well as I thought.  😉

The first panelist was from the Patent and Trademark Office and she presented a number of changes which are in the works concerning how patents and patent applications work.  Given that our mission involves open sourcing our designs instead of patenting them, her material did not really concern Mach 30.  The second speaker was the CEO of a computer peripheral company which derives a great deal of its income from its patent portfolio, so much so that he described his business as an intellectual property business instead of a hardware business.  At some point he went as far as to suggest the new space companies should consider a similar model.  Well, that was the proverbial straw for me, so I posted the following (somewhat snarky tweet) to vent my frustration over his message.

Now, I knew in the back of my mind that the ISPCS staff were going to draw some audience questions from tweets tagged with “#ISPCS“, but that hadn’t happened yet, so I figured nothing else would come of it.  Imagine my surprise when one of the first questions was preceded with the caveat that it came from twitter, and then heard my tweet read out loud, followed by the sound of crickets.  No one on the stage understood what the question was even asking, so I raised my hand, claimed ownership of the question, and elaborated on it.  So, how did the panelists respond?  I think the twitterverse said it best.

Ouch! Well, the second panelist did say something about liking his monopolies. But wait, there’s more.

Maybe we need to do some outreach on the benefits software companies large and small have gotten from open source software?

And do you want to know the best part? Greg and I got several “oh that was you” comments when we introduced ourselves at dinner and the reception afterwards. Let’s hear it for stirring the pot.

On Birds, Phones, and Spaceflight

I saw this tweet the other day:

It caught my attention because it’s a catchier version of a story I’ve been telling for several years now. My version goes like this:

No one could have predicted Facebook would be one of the most used features of the Internet 10 years ago, let alone when they were inventing the Internet.

Before Facebook it went like this:

Spreadsheets could not have been conceived of until the age of desktop computers. It took having a computer, a programming language, and an accounting background all coming together in the same place and person before the someone could even imagine the idea of a spreadsheet. And now, people buy Windows computers just so they can get Excel.

What does this have to do with the work of Mach 30? If you look around the space industry, patterns emerge. And one of those patterns is kind of the reverse of those stories. You see, every few years someone comes up with a new “reason” we have to invest in space access.


Image by LGEPR via Flickr

The “we” is almost always the government, and the reason is some predicted “killer app” – the space industry equivalent to Excel, or Facebook, or Angry Birds— that thing we just cannot live without. When I was a kid it was microgravity pharmaceutical research that would lead to the cure for cancer. Later it was space tourism (Take your family on the vacation of a lifetime!), which has come back around again with the sub-orbital market. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about space based solar power, the idea that we can solve the world’s energy crisis by putting up dozens of giant solar collectors to beam electricity down to Earth.

What do all of these ideas have in common? The only way you could ever build them (many commercial orbiting research stations, dozens of orbiting hotels, or giant solar power stations) is to first build the holy grail of human spaceflight: a reusable space plane that provides aircraft-like access to space. The thought is if one can convince policy makers that we need the killer app, then they will obviously fund the development of a fully reusable space plane because that is a necessary first step. And then the space community gets what it really wanted in the first place: the space plane.

Vitosha, an early Bulgarian computer (1960s).

Vitosha, an early Bulgarian computer (1960s)

But it’s all backwards from the way history works. If you think about it, this is the equivalent of someone in the 1960s saying, “I know, let’s put a computer in everyone’s pocket [smart phones] and on their desks [personal computers], and then tie them all together into a planet wide super network so we can write a program for college students [and later everyone] to keep up with what their friends are doing at any moment” as a justification for building the entire personal computing revolution and the internet. And don’t forget, this is a time when computers were somewhere between the size of small closets to entire rooms. Seriously, there was no way to predict Facebook back then, and even if you could, it would sound so crazy that no one would fund the work. The scale is too large, the reason too strange, and the payoff is too far away, if it will ever come.

Instead, researchers openly shared and collaborated on the development of improved and ever smaller computers, and on the infrastructure for what would become the internet. Later hobbyists developed an operating system, a web server, a database, a web oriented programming language, and much more, all open source. Only then, after decades of open development, was the market ready for a college kid to start Facebook and become a billionaire. If you look at the other examples, you’ll find a similar story. Truly revolutionary technology is evolved over time, and not for the reasons we eventually use it for.

This is the reason Mach 30 is organized as a research organization instead of an advocacy organization. For decades advocacy groups have lobbied the government and industry to support the dream of a spacefaring society by tantalizing decision makers with these potential killer apps. But it just has not worked, because it puts the process in reverse order. Instead, we want to provide the opportunity to turn space development around, and lead with passionate research and development, knowing that when the time, technology, and players are right, amazing businesses and markets will open up in space.

ad astra per civitatem – to the stars through community