NASA is a publicly funded US governmental agency, yet it does not seem to release all the technology it develops into public domain for people being able to study it and learn from it. For instance, full documentation has not been released for the rocket engines used etc. What is the reason for keeping most of the technological stuff proprietary (read "closed source")?

Is this because of "national security" in fears that an enemy (terrorist etc.) could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile and use it against the country?

I can understand that for example, the Army does keep things secret since they posses real weapons, but I wonder if NASA's intellectual property is considered to be dangerous when in wrong hands.

Edit: According to this answer ITAR can not prevent open source from being published so legally ITAR is not the reason why NASA does not publish things.

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    $\begingroup$ There are many people who are not US citizens & do not pay US taxes. Why should they get something for free from NASA, particularly something that could be weaponized & used against US interests? $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Dec 22 '20 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ Considering that a significant portion of the world's orbital launch vehicles are derived from, or simply slightly modified versions of, ICBMs, I fail to see how those are not "real weapons" just because they're not operated by the military. For example, the Titan was only retired fairly recently, and the Atlas is still flying. As 9/11 has proven, pretty much anything that flies and has control surfaces can be turned into a guided missile / fuel-bomb. $\endgroup$ Dec 22 '20 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Fred Weapon restrictions aside, denying NASA info to US citizens because other people else might get the info "for free" seems self-defeating. Now nobody gets it, including the US citizens and industry who paid for it, leaving the US collectively at a disadvantage. Instead, encourage other nation's space agencies to reciprocate, if they don't already. Scientific agencies like to share. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Dec 22 '20 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ There are lots of publicly funded US governmental agencies which don't publish everything they discover with taxpayer money. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Dec 23 '20 at 3:28
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    $\begingroup$ There are two separate issues at play. Just because something is proprietary, that does not mean it is "closed source". Many NASA technologies are openly described, but you still need to license them (ie, "open source", but not "public domain". It is often the case with technology that a lot of the work that is required to exploit a specific idea cannot be patented/protected, only the underlying original idea. Nobody will develop a "public domain" NASA technology when that means anyone can copy their efforts. $\endgroup$
    – Llaves
    Dec 24 '20 at 23:30

There are two major factors at play.

First, NASA doesn't own the designs of many of the technologies they use; they contract with private companies to develop them. Technological knowledge does flow back and forth between NASA and those companies, but those companies are in competition with one another, so they don't want their detailed designs made public.

Secondly, the United States' ITAR regulations severely restrict technology for anything that could be used to make a guided missile. This effectively prevents any US company from releasing detailed plans for any large rocket motor.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know that ITAR thing in detail, but in the Wassenaar Agreement WA there are explicit exceptions for public domain knowledge and they make sense - so I would imagine the US has them too (they are a signatory of the WA, but could of course have further restrictions in theory). I think the most important reason is just that no one wants to live in a world where anyone can build ICBM - even without nuclear warheads, those things are not nice. And that's why no one would want to put something like that in the public domain. $\endgroup$
    – Nobody
    Dec 22 '20 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ They are nice! Neatly Incinerating Cities Everywhere! $\endgroup$
    – coagmano
    Dec 22 '20 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ NASA doesn't own the designs of many of the technologies they use speaks so much about how flawed the system is. $\endgroup$ Dec 23 '20 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ @T.J.L. public ("tax-payers", as they like to call it in the US) money founding private companies to develop technology that stays private and the public entities that found the research don't own. $\endgroup$ Dec 23 '20 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @mgarciaisaia I'm not sure why you think the IP would transfer to NASA unless they specifically negotiated for it. When I buy a Playstation, I'm not the owner of Sony's proprietary designs and technology and am not expecting to be. $\endgroup$
    – PC Luddite
    Dec 23 '20 at 19:16

There are aspects of what NASA does that cannot be divulged because NASA does indeed rely on trade secrets held by private companies (Russell's first point). There are other aspects of what NASA does that cannot be divulged because there's not much difference between accurately landing a probe on a specific point on Mars and accurately making a nuclear missile hit a specific point on the Earth (Russell's second point).

That said, NASA hosts or supports multiple technical meetings. The presentations and papers are (mostly) free to the public. I wrote "mostly" because some technical societies are greedy. That greediness is not NASA's fault.

NASA is one of the most open of US agencies. As an example, NASA has its own subdomain on GitHub. How many other US government agencies can make that claim?

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    $\begingroup$ The cybersecurity directorate of the NSA also makes use of github pages. Alas, the rest of the NSA does not appear to have followed suit with their github account, so I don't know of any agencies that do so. $\endgroup$
    – timuzhti
    Dec 22 '20 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, there's a considerable difference between landing accurately on Mars, and doing so on Earth. Especially in these days, when anyone can buy GPS receiver chipsets for well under $100: sparkfun.com/GPS_Guide and accelerometer chips (for inertial guidance) under $1. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 22 '20 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: GPS receivers are required, or at least have been required until fairly recently to stop providing position information above 18000 ft / 1000 knots for precisely that reason. There are GPS receivers without those restrictions, which are used in rockets and even LEO satellites, but those are not available on the open market. Same way you can buy Plutonium, you just need a pretty darn good reason for it, and authorities will definitely want to know who is buying it and what you are using it for. $\endgroup$ Dec 22 '20 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag "...but those are not available on the open market." I think this is not true today anymore. Recently I saw "unlocked" GPS being sold online for amateur rocketry purposes for about $1k (dont have time looking for it now again). Also, technically it is only the receiver that restricts it so receivers could probably be quite easy hacked (firmware mod) to remove this restriction. Also, there is a "software defined" receiver called RTKLIB which can calculate position from raw sat signals and most likely has no limits at all (not confirmed though). $\endgroup$
    – Kozuch
    Dec 23 '20 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Jörg W Mittag: It's 18K meters, not feet. Feet would make GPS useless to most commercial aircraft, and no few GA ones. Inertial guidance works quite well, or you can build cruise missiles that stay at low altitudes. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 23 '20 at 4:22

NASA releases technology through its technology transfer program, for companies who want to develop NASA innovations into commercial products:


Spinoffs using NASA tech: https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/spinoff

Here is a list of some of the more well-known spinoffs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_spinoff_technologies

NASA data can be found in various archives such as the Planetary Data System (PDS): https://pds.nasa.gov/, though this is mostly useful only for scientists and artists.


I think the answer by Russell misses the point. The reason some details about rockets are not released into the public domain is not because of regulations or trade secrets, it's because they can be used to build weapons and thus no one in their right mind wants those details released. With the possible exception of the people who want to build deadlier weapons. A selection of countries which would probably be interested is:

  • North Korea could use those details about space faring rockets to build ICBM carrying nuclear or conventional warheads. Right now, based on observations of their test firings, the most powerful rocket they have can reach many parts of the USA only if it's empty. They could probably reach parts of the west coast of the USA with nuclear weapons (SIPRI Yearbook 2020, page 384). With NASA's rocket technology they could launch even primitive (thus heavy) nuclear warheads wherever they wanted.
  • India is in a smoldering war with Pakistan and has publicly stated that they might consider a nuclear first strike (SIPRI Yearbook 2020, page 362). India is close to Pakistan (the war is about a shared border), so they don't need ICBM and probably actively don't want them, because having them would be bad for their relations with super powers and the world at large. But they could still very likely improve their short and medium range rockets using some of NASA's tech.
  • Pakistan is in a similar situation as India, except they never threatened first use of nuclear weapons. On the down side, they are closely allied with Saudi Arabia (which allegedly financed large parts of their nuclear weapons program), so they are tied up in the whole middle eastern conflict. And if the situation in the middle east escalates and Saudia Arabia asks for it, Saudia Arabia could probably get nuclear weapons (and the missiles carrying them, potentially improved using NASA's technology in this scenario heare) from Pakistan at short notice (see for example Wikipedia).

I chose those three as examples because they have nuclear weapons, are not in the NPT and don't have good missiles yet. Many other states would also be interested.

Regarding the two points of Russell's answer:

  • Export control regulations don't prevent the "export" of public knowledge - even when the USA tried this for cryptographic algorithms around 20 years ago, a legal work around was to print the software on paper and ship the paper wherever you wanted. The ITAR regulations that Russell quoted don't apply to public knowledge, see ITAR §120.11. There is a provision about research institutes in §120.11.8 that might seem like it applies, but it doesn't: It just says that if an organization already signed a contract about keeping information secret, then they can't export it either. The Wassenaar Agreement WA (which the USA signed) has an explicit exception for public domain knowledge too, see WA ML22.Note 2.b. and probably another section that I can't find right now.

  • And the argument about trade secrets of private contractors applies to all domains of space tech - yet where NASA develops technology not so dangerously dual-use, a lot of it is published, so that can't be the reason.

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    $\begingroup$ NASA releases a lot of information to the public. The basics of how to launch a rocket, how to perform orbital maneuvers, and how to control attitude are taught in many universities and colleges across the country and around the world, It's the technical details that are trade secret. $\endgroup$ Dec 23 '20 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Pakistan and India have had a smoldering war between them for decades. The "no one" applied to people in the USA or other states not directly involved in those conflicts. It might be rational from a game theoretic perspective for a national of either of those countries to want better weapons. $\endgroup$
    – Nobody
    Dec 23 '20 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen Nowhere I claim that they don't release a lot of information - I explicitly state that they do release a lot of information in my third paragraph. So I really don't know what the intent of your comment is. $\endgroup$
    – Nobody
    Dec 23 '20 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn And just as a fun tidbit of information, because it sounds like you probably don't know it: India actually publically stated that they would consider a nuclear first strike (SIPRI Yearbook 2020, page 362). $\endgroup$
    – Nobody
    Dec 23 '20 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ The main argument is circular ‘they are not released because nobody (sane) wants them released’ - and why not? $\endgroup$
    – Aganju
    Dec 23 '20 at 21:52

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