NASA apparently needs to swot up on its open-source knowledge

Glasses in front of computer screen
(Image credit: Kevin Ku / Pexels)

Staff at NASA appear to need some extra guidance when it comes to some of the most crucial software areas around today, experts have claimed.

Academic researchers from the US Naval Research Laboratory, Technical University of Denmark, University of New Hampshire, and others, have published a paper to help NASA engineers wrap their heads around key open source terminology and its proper use.

The researchers suggest that NASA’s personnel continue to be confused about the specific meaning of terms like “open source software,” “free software,” and “permissive license.”


“Misunderstandings about the meaning of these terms can result in problems of fairness with solicitations, because scientists who interpret the terms differently than NASA intends may either needlessly limit the scope of their proposed work, or unwittingly propose work that does not comply with software licensing requirements,” argue the researchers in the paper.

Through the paper the researchers hope to get the space agency to adopt the definitions of the terms that are in line with software community usage, as well as mandate NASA software developers to identify what software licenses they plan to use in every proposed software project.

A broader problem

Scoping the problem, the paper says that although some NASA documents and policies have acknowledged the OSI and FSF definitions as they are widely accepted, the issue is that these aren’t used and applied consistently across projects.

"Moreover, many scientists mistakenly understand the term 'open source' to mean simply that source code is available to the public. As a result, some software products developed by scientists are advertised as 'open source' even though their licenses violate one or more of the ten criteria of the OSI definition," notes the paper.

The authors reportedly believe that establishing a common ground as to the meaning of the terms, alongside a conscious effort to clarify communication around licensing software, would be beneficial to the space-agency. 

Speaking to The Register, Bruce Perens, creator of the Open Source Definition, said that although he's really impressed by the degree to which developers at NASA have embraced open source software, he’s also aware of the gap in the way developers are trained about open source software.

"This isn't just a NASA problem. It's a problem across the entire software industry. Not only do programmers not really recognize what open source is or what the rules are, I'd say most have never read the license,” Perens added.

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Mayank Sharma

With almost two decades of writing and reporting on Linux, Mayank Sharma would like everyone to think he’s TechRadar Pro’s expert on the topic. Of course, he’s just as interested in other computing topics, particularly cybersecurity, cloud, containers, and coding.