Alumni Profilesspring2006

massey rocket image

We have liftoff: The Portland State Aerospace Society, which Bart Massey ’87 advises, launched a rocket built with open-source avionics over the desert in Eastern Oregon last summer. It flew above 18,000 feet.

massey imageGetting Open-Source
Off the Ground

Bart Massey ’87 leans intently toward a computer screen in his office at Portland State University. He’s working with a graduate student, Jamie Sharp, trying to fix a bit of open-source code embedded in an internet web browser Sharp has designed. For the average computer-user, who relies on the pre-programmed Macintosh or Microsoft operating system that comes bundled into an off-the-shelf PC, it can seem daunting to dabble in open-source software. For Massey it is commonplace, and forms the basis for his career in computer science.

In the open-source world, people use shared technology and development to create unique software and hardware based on the Linux operating system, developed by Finnish computer programmer Linus Torvalds. (Now a fellow at the Open Source Development Lab in Beaverton, Oregon, Torvalds received Reed’s Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science in Technology in 2005.)

“Open-source development is a hot field,” says Massey, who is an assistant professor at Portland State. “It’s a great cross-section between academics and application. We can teach students about open-source technology, and then they can develop programs for everyday use.”

Well, maybe not exactly everyday. In addition to helping his students develop open-source software, he also works on installing open-source technology in amateur rockets.

Massey worked with microcomputers before entering Reed, where he majored in physics and became familiar with larger machines. After a two-year stint working for Oregon-based technology powerhouse Textronix (founded by Reed alumnus Howard Vollum ’36), Massey got an M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Oregon. Recently, he received an open-source grant from Google as part of the company’s “Summer of Code” program. His work with Scott Kveton of Oregon State University allowed the two colleges to jointly receive $350,000 in open-source research funding.

The practical applications of Massey’s work are wide-ranging. For instance, he has in his office a small piece of computer hardware— a radio transmitter built entirely from open-source materials and programming that receives AM/FM signals. “Anyone can build it,” he says with a grin. His goal is to make open-source technology ubiquitous, which he sees as a social mission, empowering ordinary people and computer geeks alike.

The capabilities of open-source technology extend well beyond household appliances, to often-expensive hardware. Some of that is on display in a PSU basement where the Portland State Aerospace Society stores its equipment. All of the amateur rockets and launchers are designed on an open-source platform, dramatically reducing costs. One component, for example, sells for $20,000 on the open market; the club built its own for $100.

“I only offer support and the occasional suggestion to the students,” says Massey, who serves as the club’s faculty advisor. “Using the open-source technology, they are the ones doing the work.”

And pretty impressive work it is, based on the club’s description of a recent launch conducted in the high desert of Eastern Oregon (see the club’s website at “We finally launched Launch Vehicle No. 2 (LV2) with a complete avionics system to over 18,000 feet (above ground level) on August 20, 2005, outside of Brothers, Oregon. Technologically speaking, the flight was a stunning success in the sense that the avionics worked far better than we expected. Unfortunately, due to a failure in the nose cone ejection system, the rocket was destroyed when it hit the ground at over 500 mph.”

—Ben DuPree ’06