Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What Can You Actually Do with Newly-Released NASA Code?

This Thursday, NASA will unveil a catalog of different software that their employees have designed over the years. The code from a total of 1,000 software projects will become available for free and will be copy-right free, too.

Judging from some of the stories about this exciting news, one might get the impression that any person in the general public can take this newly-released material and design their very own rocket project.

This would be a fallacy. The code will likely become an invaluable resource for professional scientists and engineers. But those of us who do not speak the coding vernacular of computer-programming languages like JavaScript and Fortran will have little use for this new mountain of NASA code.

UCSD Fortran Screenshot.

Piecing together bits of code from various sources is similar to creating Frankenstein’s monster. In the end, the different styles of arguments you have amalgamated into your finished project will make it slower and harder to understand and read for others.

Yet, this is how many design their code these days. A final product is often a mishmash of code that designers dissect and extract from other software projects. Although it might be easier for someone to simply borrow pre-written code, it makes for a less desirable product overall.

The code from software projects that NASA will be releasing on April 10 was written many years ago, decades even. Some suspect it will be incredibly easy to read and manage. This is because designers at the time were limited by computer memory and storage space, and therefore codes had to be incredibly efficient -- check out the comments section of Wired’s take on the story.

Moreover, these projects were designed and written by some of the country’s top computer engineers at the time and will therefore be highly sophisticate and require a trained eye to read and understand. So, if you do not produce code on a regular basis, you might be disappointed when you visit technology.nasa.gov to snag your piece of NASA code.

Even regular computer programmers might get stumped from time to time when reading this code because it might be in a computer language that is very different from today’s popular languages like C++ and JavaScript.

It will be exciting to see what some people do with this new and valuable resource. The code that enabled the Hubble Space Telescope’s star-mapping capabilities was converted by a group of scientists to help track and monitor endangered whale sharks back in 2005.

There are many opportunities for this upcoming NASA catalog. However, just because this code will be available to everyone does not necessarily mean that it will be accessible to all.


  1. Javascript? Really? Who would write a scientific program in a web-oriented language (except for demo purposes)?

    1. ...I'll guess you've never tinkered with MongoDB

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