Open source speeds innovation, plays major role in NASA's mission

A close encounter with the IT chief technology officer of NASA JPL.

tom soderstrom
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

NASA may be an American agency, but it’s widely seen as a global phenomenon. When I was growing up as a kid in India I was fascinated by NASA and wanted to become a scientist one day. I ended up being a fiction writer and a technology journalist. During the Red Hat Summit in San Fransisco, I met Tom Soderstrom, IT CTO at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA. It was the closest I have ever come to meeting any top-shot at NASA JPL. We sat down to talk about open source at JPL and much more.

Software, the old way and open source way

JPL is a heavy user of open source software. Soderstrom explained how open source has changed the usage of software within the organization, “In olden days we had commercial software that commercial vendors wrote and sold to us. They were in control of all the updates and changes."

Then came along open source that changed every thing. “In open source you yourself can go in and modify the code. You can add features and improve things. In addition to this ability to modify the code, you can also get support from commercial vendors like Red Hat. It’s a great business model and we like it,” said Soderstrom.

However, they chose open source not just because of its open development model. “For us it's not about whether it's open source or commercial close source software. We are pragmatic. We use whatever works the best for our use case,” according to Soderstrom.

And open source is doing wonders at JPL, enabling their scientists and engineers to do things otherwise not possible.

tom sswap Swapnil Bhartiya

Post interview selfie with Tom Soderstrom

Open source doesn’t mean public software

People often misunderstand open source and assume that it has to be available publicly. That’s not true. I recall my discussion with Richard M. Stallman, the creator of the Free Software Foundation, the GNU operating system and much more. He said that organizations can use the free software (he doesn’t use the term open source) development model internally. If you are not releasing your software for external usage, you are not required to release the source code. Companies can freely adopt the open source model internally, without having to release any code or engage external communities.

That’s exactly what JPL does in many cases. They use the open source development model internally, to encourage reuse of software and encourage collaboration and innovation.

Open source is so widespread within JPL that it is directly affecting NASA’s space exploration missions. Curiosity is NASA’s spacecraft on Mars. This manually driven rover is some 54 million km away from Earth. The instruments onboard rover are sensitive and can operate within a certain temperature range, as a result the teams back on Earth have a very limited time to drive the rover based on conditions favorable for driving.

Curiosity sends a lot of data back to Earth that can help with drive time. Contrary to earlier times, JPL now copies that data to the cloud and then uses open source analytic tools like Elastic Stack to run elasticsearch on that data. People who are in charge of driving Curiosity “have billions of data points that they can interact with and see what the safe margins are. By doing that we can get a lot more drive time on Mars, without making any hardware changes. And that is why we on Mars, to drive around and explore the planet,” said Soderstrom.

Open source drives innovation

JPL uses GitHub Enterprise as a repository for its code. Due to security it's available only within the US. GitHub allows JPL to make its code available to people who can use it and improve through contribution. That breeds innovation.

This model goes beyond just one mission, or one project. Soderstrom said that it is already helping NASA in their next rover endeavor, which is slated to be launched in 2020.

The new spacecraft is for Earth science; it’s called SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive). Soderstrom shared an interesting anecdote related to SMAP. When they were giving a demo, an executive at JPL asked engineers if they could do certain things that they did with Curiosity with this new SMAP spacecraft while it was in the lab. They had only 2 weeks left, which was not enough time. “One of the engineers just grabbed the software from our GitHub repository and started modifying it right at that very second. He got it up and running in just a few days. We were able to perform those tasks on SMAP. It has since collected 20 billion data points and the operators of the craft have access to it. It’s the same model. That same software has now been reused for 10 different missions,” said Soderstrom.

Open source has this inherit ability to breed innovation. When people see others doing exciting things with the code, it encourages them. “The beauty here is,"Soderstrom, "We don't have to pay for all those people's time. They're paying for their own time and they're getting the benefit of it, and then taking those results and putting it back in.”

Collaboration with the outside world

Restricting ‘open source’ as a software development model will be unfair. This model can be applied anywhere. We have cases like OpenNotes where doctors are sharing their notes help patients.

JPL is doing the same. They are working with space agencies like ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) on missions like SAR that’s looking for water on Earth. Here the two agencies are collaboration on data which is open. “That's really powerful. It's open beyond just the code," said Soderstrom.

Open source is like a revoltion

Open source has changed the way we look at innovation. Red Hat CEO, Jim Whitehurst mentioned in his keynote at the Red Hat Summit that open source is playing a very important role in the 4th industrial revolution with AI and machine learning. All major players from Amazon to Microsoft and Google have open sourced their AI and machine learning technologies.

Soderstrom said that if we look at the patents from 1750s until now you can see that patents for new technology is slowing down. “Do you feel you're living in a less innovative time?” he asked. No, not really. On the contrary we are living in time when innovation is exploding all around us.

“So what’s the difference?” he asked, “If you look at patents and innovations that are coming from combining different technologies in new users, it's skyrocketing. The beauty here is, all of this is open source. If you look at Uber or Airbnb, they didn't invent any new technology, they just invented new ways of using it. You multiply that by all of the new startups that are coming, and all the people who are doing it. The innovation is endless.”

What about hardware?

Open Source is not just about software. Nowadays there is a lot of inexpensive open hardware such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino...that can be used as prototypes without incurring huge bills.

“Now we can take these toys and put them on a spacecraft. Traditionally that was not possible; it had to be radiation hardened and meet all those requirements. Now it's so inexpensive that we can buy 10 of them and radiated them until they die. That's proving very beneficial,” said Soderstrom.

And then comes 3D printing that brings the flexibility of ‘open source software’ to hardware, as you can build whatever you want. “We've open sourced 3D printing internally. We have put many inexpensive 3D printers in our IT petting zoo and let people do something interesting with it,” Soderstrom said.

And people have done exciting things with 3D printers at JPL. Curiosity found an interesting rock on Mars. It's called Block Island. “The rover saw it and we noticed rust on it, which probably means water, said Soderstrom. "Rover took a lot of pictures of it from different angles and sent them back to Earth. A very creative person at JPL looked at them and said ‘I can 3D print it’. He printed the rock on a cheap 3D printer here on Earth. And now we have exactly the same replica of that rock. We gave it to Smithsonian for loan but they liked it so much that they kept it. No worries. We printed another one. We have smaller versions of the rock with braille printing at the bottom so even visually impaired kids can touch the rock and read about it.”

Now any museum can print that rock with an inexpensive 3D printer. That’s not all. JPL builds a lot of robots. Robots that can climb, swim, jump, fall...JPL is doing that with inexpensive 3D printers. Once a prototype is successful it becomes a product that goes to space. “We are thinking about sending a 3D printer to Mars to build structures. Take the soil from mars, make a brick out of it and build a house. So when the astronauts come to Mars they have a place that shields them,” said Soderstrom.

Conclusion

JPL is not an IT or software development organization. It exists to put rovers on Mars; it exists to find Earth 2.0. It's to search for and figure out how to redirect an asteroid; it’s to figure out where the universe came from.

“It's the science and the engineering,"Soderstrom said, "We want to enable those people that do that, and we want to do that by giving them the best tools they could possibly have, and letting them work in the best way they possibly can. And open source is a great enabler to do that as we don’t have to reinvent all those things.” 

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