The Next Space Race

September 25, 2014

Do you have dreams of going to Mars? Well, if so, earlier this week that dream took one step closer to being reality for not just astronauts but for everyone. It was announced that Boeing and SpaceX were award a $6.8 billion dollar NASA contract to take American astronauts to space. Boeing received $4.2 billion of this money, while SpaceX received $2.6 billion. Before this announcement American astronauts were forced to rely on rides from Russia to the International Space Station as a result of NASA ending its space shuttle program in 2011 (as a side note: giving the mounting tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, it is probably a good thing that our astronauts will have another way to get to space). Every time an American astronaut hitched a ride from the Russians the United States government paid the Russian government around $70 million dollars. With this announcement each company will build, test and fly their space vehicles; with the goal of having vehicles that can transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017. The announcement also ends bidding process between Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada for the government contracts.
The main reason for awarding Boeing and SpaceX the contracts and for the discontinuance of the NASA space shuttle program was affordability: awarding two contracts will foster competition and keep prices down, and maintaining a NASA space shuttle program was too expensive. However, this affordability could be in jeopardy over a space flight patent. This patent fight is happening between SpaceX and Blue Origin. Blue Origin is another spaceflight company whose goal is “to enable human access to space at a dramatically lower cost and increased reliability.” Currently, Blue Origin has been granted a patent that would claim the right over a specific landing procedure for booster rockets at sea. The method described by the patent is for a rocket to be launched with a trajectory over water, eventually the rocket and booster engines will separate and the booster engines will return back to earth. Upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere the booster engines are turned back on to help the device land safely on a sea platform.
SpaceX has appealed the granting of the patent because it claims that the landing technique patented is nothing new, and is fairly well known in the industry. In their appeal SpaceX says

The ‘rocket science’ claimed in the ‘321 patent was, at best, ‘old hat’ by 2009.

Blue Origin has three months to answer. If the patent is upheld it would hamper SpaceX’s ability to use the water-landing approach found in the patent.
This is not the first time that the two companies have gotten into a tiff. They fought over control of a NASA launch pad, with SpaceX winning the battle. They have also been publically critical of the work that the other company is doing. Adding more fuel to the fire, after the NASA contract announcement was made, another announcement was made that Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance (of which Boeing is a partner) are teaming up to build engines to replace the Russian engines currently in use by United Launch Alliance (United Launch Alliance is responsible for sending U.S. satellites into space). It is key to note here that with move will unite Blue Origin and Boeing- SpaceX’s two most formidable rivals. With the biggest battle between the new alliance and SpaceX being over booster engines, having patent rights to the landing of these engines could be a huge advantage for Blue Origin and Boeing.
Given the facts and history discussed above, there are several questions left to be answered. With affordability being one of the main reasons that SpaceX was awarded the NASA contract, what will happen if suddenly SpaceX becomes less affordable because they can no longer use the patented water landing technique? Should we consider the possibility that Blue Origin filed its patent to make SpaceX less affordable and potentially prevent it from receiving the NASA contract? Should we be worried that all three companies (SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing) will manipulate the patent law in an attempt to squeeze one another out of the space race?