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Want to Build a NASA Rocket? Agency Goes Public with Source Code

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from Cape Canaveral.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from Cape Canaveral. // NASA/AP

You no longer have to be a rocket scientist to access more than 1,000 cutting-edge program tools from NASA.

This week, NASA published its second annual Software Catalog, which makes much of the coding its top scientists use on a daily basis available for public consumption at no cost.

“As the emerging commercial space industry takes flight, NASA software helps give the leg up that new companies in this nascent industry need,” said Doug Rand, assistant director for entrepreneurship at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a statement accompanying the catalog.

Some of these complex engineering and aeronautics codes are the same ones used for such NASA missions as guiding spacecraft into the far reaches of the solar system and facilitating land rovers through Mars’ rough landscape.

So far, NASA is the sole agency to release such a complete set of software tools, according to a post on the White House Office of Science and Technology blog. 

The program tools are organized into 15 separate categories, which range in scope from aeronautics and propulsion, to system testing and handling, according to the catalog.

For example, the Vehicle Sketch Pad, or OpenVSP, is a tool NASA uses to design aircrafts by way of geometry modeling.

The decision to release the software catalog came as a direct result of a 2011 White House memo emphasizing the positive impact of technology transfer -- when agency research is shared and adapted for use in the private sector.

In response, NASA created a five-year-plan laying out how best to share research and other tech tools outside the agency. One of the key areas it decided to focus on was the accumulation and dissemination of its software.

“NASA is providing the safety protocols, guidance and navigation codes and even the advanced design tools needed for building spacecraft,” the document stated.

But the agency’s software doesn’t only belong among the stars.

The purpose of releasing this selection of complex code is to aid many private sector industries, according to the document. It’s already been used to create roller coasters, operate shipping movements and track endangered animals, according to NASA.

The previous version of the catalog was downloaded more than 100,000 times.

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