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In Open Source Rocket Competition, Collaboration Takes Off

Here's the challenge: Build a rocket engine. Don't worry, you don't need much.

At the SXSW festival in Austin on Saturday, startup companies DIYRockets and Sunglass are launching a competition to create 3-D-printed rocket engines with open source (read: free) technology.

Sunglass co-founder Nitin Rao says they want to make space travel "less expensive, more global, more transparent."

DIYRockets is packing the space chops: The group wants to find ways to lower costs and expand the knowledge base of the space industry. Sunglass has the tools to help. It allows people around the world collaborate on 3-D design projects, without the need for expensive software. The work can be shared through a Web browser.

The designs will be judged by a panel of scientists and inventors from NASA, MIT, TED and others. Sunglass is giving out $10,000 in prizes, and 3-D printing company Shapeways.com will provide $500 to help create the top two designs.

The goal of all of this is not to actually build a rocket and send it to space — yet.

"We hope to showcase what people can do on the platform," says DIYRockets co-founder Darlene Damm.

As far as applying the relatively new tools to the space industry, Rao says, "There's enormous inspiration value." If people are literally building rockets, how hard could designing a chair be?

That's in the short term.

"Over the long term, we want to help people become involved in the [space] industry," Damm says. The talent is out there, she says: "There's so much untapped potential around the world."

As NASA hands the reins of space travel over to the private sector, the space industry is evolving. Retired astronaut John Grunsfeld told NPR in February that the change was natural: Private companies are building off knowledge that NASA has spent decades cultivating.

Damm says initiatives like the rocket competition are adding to this growing trend of public-private partnerships. She says the next step is "taking it down to a level where more people can be involved in it." Think mobile apps, which anyone with the skills can build and make available to others.

"This is a direction where the world is definitely going, and we're at the beginning," she says.

As the space industry turns more toward tourism and away from satellites and research, Damm says, there's no time like the present.

"Now is a really important time to set up a way for everyone to get involved," she says.

But that wouldn't be possible without open source tools that facilitate global networking. With Sunglass, Rao says contributors can track and annotate changes on their designs. Participants with a wide variety of expertise will be able to have a role.

"You define what your contribution is," Rao says. You could help with the design and aesthetics — or you could be an actual rocket scientist.

"We have some hunches for how it might go," Rao says, "but we fully expect to be surprised about the breadth and nature of the projects we'll see."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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