Get Software for Designing Rockets and Piloting Drones, Free From NASA

By Kiona Smith-Strickland on at

You can get over 1,000 free programmes from NASA, thanks to the second release of the space administration's online software catalogue, which debuted last year. The catalogue includes every piece of software that NASA built for itself, ranging from project management and inventory programmes to design software for rockets and crewed spacecraft.

“This is all stuff from the past four to five years. A lot of it’s new,” Dan Lockney, programme executive for Technology Transfer at NASA, told Gizmodo. “This isn’t like, Apollo guidance systems, that you go ‘Oh, neat, look at the stuff that NASA did! How rudimentary!’ This is new, modern, and used today.” In fact, this year’s catalogue includes a section highlighting the software that NASA engineers are currently using to design the Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket that will one day launch the Orion spacecraft toward Mars – and you can get them for free.

How? Visit NASA’s software catalogue and search by keyword or browse by application type in the menu on the left. You can click the link in the upper-right to download a PDF version of the catalogue, if you’re the old-fashioned type; check page 6 for a list of the most popular titles, and page 8 for the SLS software. If you see something you like, click the “request software” link and fill out the form.

“You tell us who you are and what you plan to use it for, and we’ll let you have it,” said Lockney. For the forty or so open source programmes on the list, you don’t even have to do that; you can just download them right away.

The Space Age is Open Source

One of the most popular new programmes this year is a flight-approved operating system for drones and cubesats — small 10cm cube-shaped satellites which have become a popular form factor for citizens scientists and students. The programme is called Core Flight Enterprise and the Core Flight Suite. “More people are able to build these little 10 cm by 10 cm cubesats, and more people have access to their own small aircraft in the form of drones, and this software is flight cleared, flight approved operating systems for these types of vehicles,” explained Lockney.

Get Software for Designing Rockets and Piloting Drones, Free From NASA

The Core Flight software has been so popular, in fact, that NASA made it open source. Lockney told Gizmodo, “Even though it wasn’t written in open source code, we went back and reverse-engineered it and cleared all of the hoops to make it open source just so that everyone could have it, because we couldn’t keep up with the demand for it.” Thousands of people have downloaded the programme so far.

In fact, NASA has created an active open source community. “We’ve got a couple score of open source codes, and around each of those we’ve built an open source kind of user community, where people will swap ideas and build more and more of that tool,” said Lockney. Even with programmes that aren’t open source, Lockney said that users often build add-ons and then share them with NASA, along with comments and feedback, so the catalog provides a side benefit of actually helping NASA improve some of its programmes.

Wacky Uses for NASA Software

Although this is the second year for the catalogue, NASA has been giving away its software for much longer. Predictably, it’s been picked up by private aerospace companies, universities, and individuals interested in drones, astronomy, or cubesats. But over the years, it’s also been used outside the aerospace industry in some surprising ways.

“Our design tools have been used for everything from designing Cadillacs and BMWs to roller coasters to guitars to helicopters; you name it,” said Lockney. Data processing software which was originally designed for star mapping has been used to track whale sharks and other endangered species in photographs by recognising each individual’s distinctive markings. Some of NASA’s project management software is now helping make hospitals more efficient.

Get Software for Designing Rockets and Piloting Drones, Free From NASA

Image: Jon Hanson via Wikimedia Commons

And the same software that runs the Hubble Space Telescope also powered dating site in the early 2000s, which Lockney says is “kind of wacky.”

Why Are They Doing This?

The 1958 Space Act, which created NASA, also charged the agency with making sure that its space research produced practical benefits for the Earthbound public. “Every year, we try to get out as much technology as possible,” said Lockney. “In some instances, we’ll patent and license stuff, but with software, we give it away.” That’s because the US government can’t hold copyright, so there’s usually no intellectual property restriction on the software. Lockney told Gizmodo that NASA builds between 500 and 600 new pieces of software each year.

NASA also built its software catalogue to make it easier for other government agencies to see what’s available. The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 requires federal agencies to find out whether a software tool already exists within the federal government before they decide to buy a commercial version or build their own. Lockney said that NASA’s software catalogue helps other agencies check NASA for existing programmes, which may help save some taxpayer money.

There’s Always a Catch

When you click the “request software” link, your form gets emailed to NASA employee whose entire job is to distribute software – and make sure that certain things don’t fall into the wrong hands. Although the entire software catalogue is free, some items aren’t available outside the US, and others aren’t available to the public at all. NASA says that the reason is national security.

“Because we’re NASA and we deal with things that could be weaponised easily, we’ve got a lot of controls in place for making sure that none of the sharp stuff gets out,” explained Lockney. NASA’s “sharp stuff” includes guidance and navigation software, for instance. NASA won’t give software to anyone in countries that the US doesn’t have diplomatic relations with, like North Korea and Iran, or a list of about 27 other countries it considers “missile concerns”. And export controls prevent some programmes from being transferred to users anywhere outside the US. Lockney said that NASA checks the IP address on each software request to verify where it’s coming from.

Other programmes can only be transferred to other US government agencies, sometimes due to security concerns and sometimes because a government contractor still holds some intellectual property rights to the software. However, NASA tries to share as much as it can. “A lot of this other stuff, our goal is widespread public distribution, and this stuff is low enough risk that we err on the side of letting the most people have it possible,” he said.

NASA is in the process of turning it into something more like an app store, which will speed up the process of getting software. For now, check out the catalogue here.