NASA’s Open Innovation Program recently participated in the Open Hardware Summit, sponsored by the newly formed Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA). What we witnessed was a community in its early stages, developing in front of our eyes, tackling technical/legal/cultural challenges with an openness that we have grown to respect and see as an essential part of the way NASA will do business in the future.
There are so many interesting aspects of this growing community – from the power that community platforms have in the design and manufacturing of open hardware (Arduino, Thingiverse, and the newly launched Open Design Engine), to the striking desire of this community to explore – encouraging kits like OpenROV, CubeSat designs, or entire sets of projects like in this space and science-themed issue of Make: magazine.
The event was truly a melting pot of the maker community. Take for instance the citizen scientists of Public Laboratory. Their mission is to foster a distributed community who specializes in using open technology to investigate environmental concerns. Also represented in force was the emerging open source driven 3D printer market. A variety were on display, and even Makerbot’s own Bre Pettis was on-hand to give his thoughts on the new Replicator 2. Of course the Maker community would not be well represented without the namer (or namesake, depending on who you ask) of the community itself. The CEO and founder of Make: Magazine, Dale Dougherty, took us through the history of the “Make:” brand, and reflected on his influencers along that journey. Since this Maker community strives to re-teach each other absolutely everything they learn, Dale’s choice to focus on something that very few in the community already knew seemed perfect for this venue.
After returning home and having time time to consider what I’ve learned, two major takeaways resonate with me in the context of NASA and its future:
1. Open source hardware is helping to make spaceflight accessible to anyone, today.
Here I simply need to point to a stellar presentation by Stephen Murphey, Open Sourcing the Final Frontier. During the presentation he outlined the cubesat platform, and how (and for how much out-of-pocket money) one can get involved. Cubesats are designed to fit in the extra pockets of space left by large, expensive payloads, and can therefore be launched opportunistically when space is available. To me, this served as a practical, as well as a metaphorical example of how small experimental projects within NASA have the potential to make a big difference, and it also makes the philosophies of Open Government even more relavant as we continue to explore with essential help from outside the walls of government.
2. For the most audacious of humanity’s goals, even for the ones where large government-backed efforts will lead the way, open source philosophies are critical for not only its success, but also its sustainability.
This was really more of an epiphany. During the first session at the #OHSummit, Leah Buechley (from MIT’s Media Lab) told a story about how her friend’s power inverter, lacking an open hardware design, became a barrier to self-repair when it failed, jeopardizing their family’s solar-powered home. Major hardware stores and paid repairmen were hard to come by in their remote, “off-the-grid” outpost. At that moment I realised how much NASA had in common with the open source hardware community. I spent a good portion of my career pondering how humanity may someday venture beyond Low-Earth Orbit to live on other worlds. Leah’s story made a crystal-clear connection between our off-the-grid efforts on Earth, and our dreams at NASA to do the same throughout the solar system.
When humans leave Earth to live on other worlds, or even orbit Earth for months at a time, the ability of a crew to repair, construct, make, and tinker is just as important as designing robust, flexible, operable hardware in the first place. Replacement parts could take weeks or months to get to the International Space Station, but imagine the wait-time for a trip to Mars!! Witnessing those around me in the room nod their heads as they imagined their own solar power system, reminded me that we at NASA are responsible for those living in the most “off-the-grid” home of them all.
Attending the summit really helped reaffirm my belief that we’re all in this space exploration thing together. Secondly, if there are lessons to be learned by developing hardware in an open environment – and if this in turn makes critical designs more sustainable – then yes, open hardware community, we are listening…. and we want to learn more!