After wasting billions on SLS US government talk about claiming Spacex Heavy Launch intellectual property rights

The day-to-day leader of the National Council is Space Executive Secretary Scott Pace. Scott Pace is the former director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University.

Scientific American Asked – NASA is spending billions of dollars developing its own heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, as the centerpiece for future exploration activities beyond low Earth orbit. But private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are pursuing more reusable heavy-lift vehicles of their own that may be less expensive to build and operate. Is there room for public-private partnership there, and what might that look like?

Pace said “Heavy-lift rockets are strategic national assets, like aircraft carriers. There are some people who have talked about buying heavy-lift as a service as opposed to owning and operating, in which case the government would, of course, have to continue to own the intellectual properties so it wasn’t hostage to any one contractor. One could imagine this but, in general, building a heavy-lift rocket is no more “commercial” than building an aircraft carrier with private contractors would be.”

After wasting tens of billions on SLS, the US government has talked about claiming Spacex Heavy Launch intellectual property rights.

49 thoughts on “After wasting billions on SLS US government talk about claiming Spacex Heavy Launch intellectual property rights”

  1. This seems ridiculous to me: as an analogy, a bloke needs a pushbike for 10 long rides and against all logic, decides postpone his planned excursions to build a bike from scratch rather than borrow or hire one immediately at a fraction of the cost and without all the work and worries.

    Still, ‘doesn’t matter does it.. It’s only American tax payers’ money.

    Just another example of Homo Sapiens sad inability to work toward common goals: how much sense would it make to a metaphorical alien monitoring activity on our planet to discover China, India, Israel, Japan and three separate companies in the U.S. all striving at incredible cost to achieve the same goal?

    “Silly human, silly human race” (“Yours is no Disgrace”, from “The Yes Album”

  2. As mentioned in other comments, it sounds like he’s talking about privatizing SLS, not partnering on BFR or New Armstrong. This suggests that the idea is getting talked about.

    I think privatizing SLS could be a clever way for NASA to distance itself from SLS, and make killing SLS more politically acceptable.

    Once the first BFR launch gets close, NASA could solicit bids for “heavy lift service”, and gives bidders the option of using SLS. ULA make a bid of $1 billion/ year to keep the factory open, plus $800M per launch. SpaceX bids anything they want, probably much less. NASA accepts both bids, but only for a couple of years.

    When New Armstrong rolls out, NASA puts the solicitation out again, and presumably ULA looses. Problem solved.

    The important thing is that having more launchers available provides more pressure for NASA to build payloads. We need to put heavier, more capable landers on Mars.

  3. If SP can cast doubt on SpaceX’ IP ownership, it chills the financial markets toward SpaceX. Moreover if it is obvious that the chair of the Space Council is hostile to SpaceX, that also makes it harder to raise money. Just saying it’s a think EM needs to take on with lawyers and private investigators. SP has things to loose.

  4. I just have pity on them. without reusability and being able to fuel in orbit like SpaceX is developing they don’t have a chance in the new space age. They are stuck in the 60s and the worst part is that they don’t see it.

  5. “the government would, of course, have to continue to own the intellectual properties so it wasn’t hostage to any one contractor.”

    Absolutely! The only thing worse would be if the U.S. were hostage to an adversarial government for rocket engines …

  6. The joys of entrepreneurship and heroism fade as you become one of the big boys. From hero to Boeing. So sad, but inevitable. At the same time, Elon Musk is fighting a better fight than anyone I can think of.

    • While I sympathize with Elon Musk’s overall goal and his dedication to it, I don’t fool myself thinking he’s a rebel fighting for the cause.

      He’s pretty much a system guy, and he will probably succeed precisely because he knows how to survive in it.

      That’s why he avoids referring to (much less criticize) SLS in most, if not all, of his speeches.

      He most assuredly knows SLS is ‘the will of the people’ (people that rule, that is) and he won’t get in the way.

      Yeah, it sucks, but life ain’t perfect and it’s better if humankind can get the desired results despite the detours and convoluted paths taking us there, than antagonize due to impractical principles and be blocked by the system.

      • Musk is getting in the way of SLS as in Falcon Heavy will (or should) demonstrate the waste it is. If FH is able to launch multiple times (while SLS has not even flown once), there will be huge pressure to scrap it.

        Also, Musk cannot speak against Nasa, they are his biggest customers. You dont diss your customers.

        • There is no way they can destroy him for bringing something new with a private enterprise spirit, without looking like petty dictators of a banana republic.

          That means they could still use backstabbing and sand-in-the-gears tactics, killing by red tape and regulation, though.

      • Musk doesn’t need to attack SLS. It is mostly obvious to all that it is an expensive project.

        Musk needs to work on BFR. He size the BFR so that its disposable mass to LEO is higher than SLS. He should make a 10 meter fairing option just for the bespoke 10 meter SLS payloads.

        In the meantime just focus on making the BFR as a reusable F9H replacement and wait for it to be obvious to everyone but senators that SLS is a boondoggle.

  7. Back when we were working to get the Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990 passed, I submitted an opinion piece to the National Space Society magazine “Ad Astra” that recommended a space policy that restricted US government financing to science based on what the USPTO declared to be unpatentable as “laws of nature”. Any funding for technology would then be done, indirectly, through purchases within a regime of fair bid competition — leaving engineering risk management up to capital.

    As reported to me by individuals connected with “Ad Astra”, Scott Pace caught my op ed piece before it was published and aggressively sought to have it spiked because he and I were at loggerheads over his role in the newly formed government bureaus regulating commercial space.

    It’s sad people don’t learn.

    • BTW, I did finally get to set forth this opinion in Congressional testimony:

      “The Coalition for Science and Commerce is a grassroots network of citizen activists supporting greater public funding for diversified scientific research and greater private funding for proprietary technology and services. We believe these are mutually reinforcing policies which have been violated to the detriment of civilization. We believe in the constitutional provision of patents of invention and that the principles of free enterprise pertain to intellectual property. We therefore see technology development as a private sector responsibility. We also recognize that scientific knowledge is our common heritage and is therefore a proper function of government. We oppose government programs that remove procurement authority from scientists, supposedly in service of them. Rather we support the inclusion, on a per-grant basis, of all funding needed to purchase the use of needed goods and services, thereby creating a scientist-driven market for commercial high technology and services. We also oppose government subsidy of technology development. Rather we support legislation and policies that motivate the intelligent investment of private risk capital in the creation of commercially viable intellectual property.”

      A key aspect of the original language for the Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990 was taken during the negotiations prior to passage — and it should be put back in ASAP:

      Competitive bids for launch services must include the cost of insurance for payload and reflight.

      This privatizes one of the biggest risk items that bureaucrats use to justify arrogating to themselves the authority to pick winners.

  8. He’s not 100% wrong at the moment. Heavy lift *is* sort of like aircraft carriers now, because there’s no market for them other than government programs. But that won’t always be the case. There was no private market before because the costs were too high. But if BFR and/or New Armstrong bring full reusability to heavy lift, then private use cases will appear and it will become more like heavy cargo planes where Boeing sells to both FedEx and the Military.

    • Yeah for the moment he is right. Until BFR displaces F9H launches he is basically right because the launch market won’t have changed yet. But it will change.

      There isn’t much to worry about with respect to SLS apart from the wastefulness of it. They are planning one launch a year which is a joke. It will be the preferred launch platform for bespoke probes. In the meantime BFR will consume all F9H sales because it will cost less and one day we’ll notice that SpaceX is putting 20x the payload in to LEO compared to SLS.

    • Exactly correct. A market doesnt exist because that market is way to expensive. The use cases are numerous once you get the launch cost down. Everything from Asteroid mining to a 10th grade class putting a Satellite into orbit for a class project.

    • It happened with Boeing and the 747. Transoceanic air freight hardly existed before that airplane flew. But the capacity of the cargo version of the plane created the market.

      Space hardware is expensive because launch is expensive. The ideal design point is where the marginal cost of making the payload lighter is equal to the marginal cost of launch. So if you lower launch cost, the payloads get cheaper and heavier.

  9. I’m pretty sure the critical distinction here is that the government owns all the aircraft carriers because *it paid to have them built in the first place.

    Doubtless SpaceX would sell the government all the BFRs it cared to buy, and even offer a quantity discount.

      • That’s why you sell the government an operations and maintenance contract. The government doesn’t maintain its old GFE rocket motors, that “it owns”, either. Private contractors do that.

        • Musk wants to own his rockets. Government needs to get out of the mentality that they need to “own” stuff. They need to contract a service for 4/kg to LEO.

    • ITAR means that he would go to jail if that happened. If you want to have absolute freedom with technology, then make sure that technology isn’t strategically sensitive.

      “Hi, I’ve just come up with a new design for a more powerful nuclear bomb! I’ll just publish it on the internet, and share it with millions of my closest friends…”

      Space rocket designs aren’t cookie recipes.

  10. This really is gobbledygook, but as best as I can figure is he is actually saying to use SpaceX or Blue Origin as a service providers, rather than vehicle manufacturers, would require NASA to hold the IP of either company. But he does not explain how the companies could hold the government hostage with or without the IP. I don’t know if he is imagining a monopoly where only one of either company exists, therefor requiring the existence of SLS as a backup or leverage against a monopoly. It is stranger still because he seems to think holding the IP would not be required if the rockets are sold to the government in, I suppose, the traditional way. The carrier comparison does imply the outright ownership and operation angle, so maybe he is imagining either company somehow reneging on servicing their rockets if NASA can’t blackmail them with IP control, but that makes no sense either.

    • ” But he does not explain how the companies could hold the government hostage with or without the IP. I don’t know if he is imagining a monopoly where only one of either company exists, therefor requiring the existence of SLS as a backup or leverage against a monopoly. It is stranger still because he seems to think holding the IP would not be required if the rockets are sold to the government in, I suppose, the traditional way.”

      Scott is simply quoting from Senator Shelby’s campaign material in the last election. He wants the man whose hand is on NASA’s throat to know the staff of the National Space Council does not intend to piss on Shelby’s parade.

    • It’s so ULA can make SpaceX rockets and sell them to the feds in rigged bid crony capitalist contracts. THAT is what it means to take SpaceX’s IP.

  11. Seems like they ran Pace through the “How to Speak Trump” course at some point.

    I have to say, that is some bullsh­it delivered with great authority. It sounds like it ought to make sense, and it seems like it says some important things. But it is, ultimately, some high-grade gobbledegook.

    Here, let me translate:

    1) SLS–just because. Everybody’s gonna keep getting paid.
    2) Nice rocket you’ve got there, Elon. Be a shame if something… happened to it.
    3) Play nice and there are plenty of goodies to go around, everybody.

    I’ve usually thought of Pace as a pretty honest broker and straight-shooter. Apparently the NSpC job came with a few strings attached to it. As his fearless leader would say: Sad!

    • Scott realizes that NASA is not politically important outside NASA Center districts, so there will be no backing for any other answer than the answer he gave, quoting from Senator Shelby’s campaign material.

      • That sounds about right. I guess that’s why it was a written response. Otherwise, he would have had to speak in front of a camera. They probably couldn’t risk him using his eyelids to blink out T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code.

  12. Sounds like Mr. Pace’s brain hasn’t quite flipped the bit to understand that the point of the question was how to integrate commercial heavy-lift with gov’t requirements. It appears he took the question as how to get commercial operators to build the SLS.
    There is no way the gov’t could “nationalize” Falcon Heavy or New Glenn. Not gonna happen. What will happen is one or two test flights of SLS, declare victory and then contract out services to SpaceX or Blue Origin (assuming New Glenn and Falcon Heavy are operational, and actually cheaper to operate).
    What needs to happen is for NASA to start planning the missions and the payloads that will need lifting. Those can then be built in the SLS facilities, right up until Bigelow blows past with his space-rated modules…maybe NASA can just modify/adapt those expanding habitats and contract out the space trucking aspect…

    • The pork must flow.

      At least a couple SLS will be built and launched, even if it’s only for show.

      Then the bureaucrats will suddenly read the newspapers and become aware of the other options, and consider leasing a rocket from “one of the co-developed commercial partners profiting from the plentiful results of the very successful SLS program”.

    • I don’t think Elon has any desire to keep launching and making F9H’s after a few symbolic flights, either. Granted there is a lot of – deserved – doubt and criticism of the BFR model of SpaceX’s “let’s obsolesce our own products” approach, but it sounds like Elon is nervous as hell just to fly F9H once, nevermind a dozen times. They may make a few of them if the government money appears to buy them for heavy lift launches, because let’s face it he would LOVE to steal (more) business from ULA, but if he has the choice to stop flying F9H in 3-5 years at the expense of eating a lot of the initial costs, in exchange for BFR, he will. F9H no longer fist with either their new model or any kind of Raptor-based F9 fallback model.

      • Elon will launch F9’s and F9H’s as long as people pay him money to launch them. They will pay him money to launch them until it becomes cheaper to launch as a payload on a BFR.

        Elon’s “desire” is to make profit so he really doesn’t care which rocket is used. Besides the F9 and F9H complement each other well.

        • Elon’s ultimate goal is Mars and the rocket for that goal is BFR so I think given equal situation and cost he will always opt for using and developing BFR actually even at some loss to the bottom line he would do that.

          • Probably however the BFR timeline is idiotic optimistic.
            Some year delayed we get the first BFR missions, perhaps a year later we get the crew version launched unmanned as an satellite carrier, then 2-3 ear later we get the first manned flight, probably an tourist flight combined with an satellite delivery.
            This become standard and you get some spacelab style missions for programs who don’t fit on ISS or is national prestige for Brazil or Poland.
            1-2 year and BFR start servicing ISS and a moon mission is under planning,
            Note that in the same time launch cost has fallen hard, you have probably found interesting stuff on moon. How expensive would it be to put simple rovers on moon, if you are in LEO?

    • “Sounds like Mr. Pace’s brain hasn’t quite flipped the bit to understand that the point of the question was how to integrate commercial heavy-lift with gov’t requirements. It appears he took the question as how to get commercial operators to build the SLS.”

      Oh, don’t worry, Scott knew what the question was. He just didn’t want to answer it, because of the political difficulties the truth would make for the Trump administration and NASA. In decades past I’ve met him at ISDCs, and he does not lose focus at all easily. He was picked for his post because he has known the congressional committee members in DC for all those decades, and has worked with them, and knows how to *not* piss them off. While he may have expected the question, he knew it was designed to commit him to one side or another, and wasn’t going to let that happen. Scott was on the National Space Society BoD when Lori Garver was its President, and supported her cautiously after she was appointed as NASA Associate Administrator when the Obama Administration was jousting with NASA committees in Congress over Constellation, and the money for Commercial Crew. Since the WH that appointed her was giving her little or nothing for that horse-trading, Scott remained cautious, and this has paid off now, as he *not* an announced enemy of the committee Chairs preserving the funds for SLS.

      Having been a Washington academic for decades, he is now a Washington bureaucrat in a position to get as much money for commercial crew as he can. Yes, he can count the dollars as well as anyone. He can also count funding committee votes as well, and knows those are more important to him being effective in his job. As long as Senator Shelby has his hand on NASA’s throat, Scott Pace will be *very* cautious in public support of Commercial Crew replacing SLS, and in the general idea that government will not be in the lead in US spaceflight for very much longer. Such things are anathema to the people controlling NASA’s budgets in Congress, because they get large political leverage in elections from being the men to deliver the money from NASA.

      • Political interview techniques 101.
        If they ask you a question you don’t want to answer, answer a different question that you would prefer to be asked.

  13. I don’t think Scott Pace is advocating that the U.S. Government confiscate SpaceX and Blue Origin’s intellectual property on heavy-lift rockets, but rather he is trying to justify the billions of taxpayer dollars that will be dumped into the Senate Launch System as “the government need to own the IP for a heavy lift system so it won’t be hostage to one contractor”.

    Thing is, the government doesn’t need SLS-level heavylift launchers for national security missions– Vast majority of national security payloads fit on EELV-certified rockets like the Atlas V and Falcon 9. The heavier ones fit on Delta IV Heavy, and Falcon Heavy is about to make its debut in a few weeks. And New Glenn is on the horizon to provide even more choice when it flies.

    Just another Washington swamp creature trying to put a good word in for those senators who foisted the SLS boondoggle on the American taxpayer as a make-useless-work pork jobs program for their districts.

    • Don’t get why government is so scared to be dependent on one contractor. I get that one rocket may blow up and an investigation may ground them for two years but that seems to be less of an issue.

      If SpaceX wins 95% of access to LEO then there is always monopoly law. I mean that is what it is there for.

      I don’t see a future where SpaceX dominates as a monopoly. BO is working hard, Orbital isn’t dead, ULA might wake up, etc.

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