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Open source in the stars for NASA?

The penguin has landed. Well, not exactly. But in one small step for Linux believers and their kind, a NASA analyst recommends moving some software work to an open-source model.

An analyst for NASA recommended in a recent paper that the agency move some software development to an open-source model.

The paper, published in late April and featured on Slashdot on Friday, argues that developing software under open-source licenses will improve development, lead to better collaboration and enhance efficiency.

"We recognize that some software, because of export control, ownership or commercialization concerns, may not be suitable for open source," Patrick Moran, a staff member of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center, said in the paper. "Nevertheless, we expect that many NASA projects would be appropriate for, and would greatly benefit from, an open-source distribution."

The report is the latest to propose that government agencies more fully consider open-source software. Last October, nonprofit government contractor MITRE recommended that the government recognize the critical role that open-source software is already playing in both civilian and military agencies.

That report found that open-source software "plays a more critical role in the (Department of Defense) than has been generally recognized" and argued that, if open source were banned, the military's information security would plummet and costs would rise sharply.

In the most recent report, Moran notes that open-source software is easier to evaluate firsthand because the code is available. Moreover, an agency like NASA could step in and keep an open-source project alive, if necessary. Such a move would be difficult with proprietary software.

"This is not to say releasing software open source magically means that programmers will step in when needed--many open-source projects die in obscurity--but when the technology is important enough...then the motivation will be there," Moran said.

Moran also points out that the agency frequently creates software aimed at educators for use in the classroom--most of which must be cost-sensitive.

In the end, the paper recommends that NASA consider the Mozilla Public License for that agency's open-source development initiatives, since the license is recognized by the Open Source Initiative, requires that derivative works also be open source (but not the same license) and was developed with input from legal and technical experts.