Open Source to Chemical Rockets

From Dan Shearer CV

(written in 2008)

How a young Australian discovered Open Source and a career. Eventually learning that a mixture of code, law and mathematics is a frontier for human rights battles.

A light-lift Electron rocket launches from New Zealand in 2023

It isn't often I come face to face with myself after a twenty-something year break, but I did yesterday.

As a first year university student at the South Australian Institute of Technology, I wandered into an Adelaide company called Australian Launch Vehicles (ALV), a company I noticed when driving around doing landscape gardening oddjobs. “Launch Vehicles” sounded very cool, so in I went. ALV was founded by a pair of entrepreneurial rocket scientists. Despite decades of rocketry history in South Australia, there was no local space industry. Establishing a new Australian spaceflight capability in 1987 was very ambitious.

The founders kindly spent time talking to me, and explained that one of their biggest problems was that ground control software would be hideously expensive. Software? Now I was hooked. That comment had unintended consequences.

Thanks to my parents' foresight and provision I had already been using FidoNet PC modem-based bulletin board (BBS) networks at in my upper school years. FidoNet was freely-distributed software and I had always been fascinated that you could actually talk to the developers.

FidoNet is still running and useful to people the internet doesn't reach, and hobbyists. The FidoNet logo was a dog with a diskette in its mouth - the 80s version of emojii:

                   /  \
                  /|oo \
                 (_|  /_)
                  _`@/_ \    _
                 |     | \   \\
                 | (*) |  \   ))
    ______       |__U__| /  \//
   / FIDO \       _//|| _\   /
  (________)     (_/(_|(____/

FidoNet logo by John Madill

At the South Australian Institute of Technology I discovered another pre-Internet forum technology called Usenet, which did not run on PCs but on large room-sized computers and which was more extensive than the early internet at the time. Usenet also still exists today. I found it amazing, all those people doing what we now regard as normal Internet activities. I wrote a crude search engine that would crawl Usenet for my keywords overnight and email me relevant articles, and it seemed like an amazing kind of superpower at the time even though the amount of information available at the time seems tiny today, and users were all either in academia or technical occupations.

I kept noticing the contrast between the software development model used to create Usenet and how software written written in the commercial world worked, where small companies and individuals working in isolation sold floppy disks of their work in the post or in shops. In 1988 the Usenet network itself had downloadable source code, patches and fixes being emailed out so you could keep up to date, and new software versions on a daily basis. Just like open source internet-based computing today.

I was so enthused by what collaborative software development could do for spaceflight that I sketched out a plan, and posted to FidoNet in 1989 asking for help, although I had to ask someone with a mailbox to receive replies for me! I did have a University internet email address though, and with some help I sent the same message on Usenet,which you can still see online today:

The South Australian company Australian Launch Vehicles is progressing
well with its proposal for a low cost, unmanned, nonmilitary rocket to
launch light satellites into low earth orbit. Significant commitment
from engineering companies, component manufacturers and potential
customers - both locally and internationally - indicate that the
innovative concept has sufficient support to carry it through to

The simplicity of the design is such that the computational requirements
will be within the power of a modern personal computer. Until recently
it was assumed that the software needed for this computer (and also for
the modest ground control installations) would be produced by one of the
many commercial companies able to do so.

However, it has been suggested that the software needs and other
computing related issues could be better met by a coordinated effort in
the international public domain. Software so produced would remain
within the public domain, freely accessible to any interested parties.


(This message is posted on behalf of an Institute student who has been
in touch with Australian Launch Vehicles in South Australia's
Technology Park. Mailed replies can be sent to him, Dan Shearer, ...

Once upon a time email addresses in Australia ended in ".oz". Unfortunately as the internet grew it was agreed that the standard code should be used, so they tacked on a ".au", and nobody uses .oz anymore.

Clearly I was feeling enthusiastic, because I also emailed the same message to the electronic postmasters of every organisation that listed its address in Usenet maps, turning me into a spammer before I had heard of the word - and people didn't seem to mind either which is equally strange now. It is an odd feeling re-reading my words as a twenty year-old! I was deluged with hundreds of responses, many from seasoned computing and/or aerospace professionals with computing backgrounds who gave their time to an idea that seemed to touch a nerve. I spent many weeks corresponding with people all over the world. Best of all the Institute Computer Centre gave me the rare privileges of disk space and Internet access on my account on the VMS computer cluster. It wasn't their job but I am forever indebted to VMS supremo Rollo Ross for letting me loose.

After a while I decided it really might be possible to write and test rocket launch control software. The director of Research for the Institute (Professor David Lee, still at UniSA) and the head of Computer Centre (Chris Rusbridge) came with me and talked to the rocket scientists. One of them in particular, Peter Winch, suggested an angle you I could tackle. So then I went around the Institute (being completely unused to how academics work, and the way they say things) and put together an alternative project and posted followup, this time with my rare privilege of being able to write to the Usenet forum describing what I did with Professor David Lee. My project never had much of a chance, because the main act was Australian Launch Vehicles and after a period of trying gloriously they went out of business.

The whole experience started me off on something new. I had felt the power of a technical discussion where highly competent people treated me as an equal, over a global network. I discovered and wrote tools that let me analyse what people were saying anywhere on Usenet, and discover who was likely to have similar interests to me. And I learned that global development of source-available software had been going on for decades.

I was particularly interested to see what could be done with collections of this free software, and what it was like to work on internet mailing lists writing it. So I set myself to learn everything I could. Eventually, years later, this kind of software became respectable, and got a name. Open Source Software. In 2023, Open Source Software flies in every spaceflight I am aware of, although the control software is not all Open Source.

And ALV, the launch company? All the people have moved on of course but the internet hasn't entirely forgotten. Peter Winch spoke at the 1st Australian Space Conference in 1990 alongside Buzz Aldrin. I was able to ring him up at an industrial plant... "So, remember when you were a rocket scientist in Adelaide...". We had a great old chat :-)

And now as our rights to a private life and even private thoughts are under assault from the ever-more connected digital age, Open Source software is one of the few things that stand a chance of being able to help.