Musk V. Bezos Round II: SpaceX Challenges Blue Origin Sea Landing Patent

Blue Origin Patent Illustration

In June of 2010, Blue Origin filed for U.S. patent 8678321, which describes the process of landing the returning stage of a reusable launch vehicle onto a barge or floating platform at sea.  The patent drew some attention at the time for two reasons. The first was that it seemed to reveal a new piece of information regarding the highly secretive company’s long term plans.  The second reason was the surprise elicited by a patent being granted to such a generic description of a plan of operation, as opposed to a specific product or component of a product.

With very little new information coming out regarding Blue’s plans outside of revelations as part of NASA Space Act Agreements under CCDev 2,  the “two if by sea” approach to achieving of launch reusability was kept in the news not by Blue Origin, but by SpaceX, which commenced with a series of tests for the Falcon 9 V1.1,  beginning with its maiden launch. Even as it continued through two more launches, that of the CRS-3 and Orbcomm-2 missions, comments from company founder Elon Musk suggested a determination to advance to a return to land as soon as possible. Following the most recent recovery attempt however, Musk surprised a number of people by observing that the company might elect to proceed with an interim approach of landing on a barge at sea.

In what should probably not come as a surprise to anyone, particularly in light of the legal fight between SpaceX and Blue Origin over NASA’s historic launchpad 39A,  SpaceX’s latest legal challenge is an attempt to nullify the Blue Origin patent.

The grounds for the challenge, which are linked to here and here (from GeekWire)  are a claim based on prior art in which SpaceX points to three descriptions of a similar procedure which were published well before the Blue Origin claim.  One of the claims was filed by former NASA manager George Mueller, father of the  “All Up” testing method for the Saturn V, on behalf of Kistler Aerospace, a company he subsequently headed.  Following bankruptcy, and a contracting challenge by none other than SpaceX, the remains of Kistler Aerospace and the partially completed K-1 two stage reusable launch vehicle were acquired by Rocketplane Limited to become Rocketplane-Kistler  (RpK),  SpaceX’s original fellow competitor in NASA’s COTS program.

Just as with the 39A story, news media will no doubt focus on the admittedly entertaining aspect of two rock stars of the digital age going head to head in another round in what may seem to be the most unusual of venues, space.  Also, it is not totally clear who picked this fight.  While SpaceX launched the challenge, it may have been in response to a curt letter from Blue Origin.  For all we know, the original patent could have been a very clever preemptive shot across the bow at SpaceX. Nevertheless, the fact that the latter is willing to mount the challenge to the patent at least suggests that engineers at SpaceX see barge landings as a necessary, not optional step long the path to first stage reusability, and one which could have a commercial rather than just developmental angle.

Provided Blue Origin eventually shows up with a launch vehicle which is intended to compete in the same market as Space, something that is not all clear, the escalation of a budding rivalry between Musk and Bezos taking place at the launch pad rather than in court could be a very good thing for the space industry. As much as SpaceX is doing to drive the advance of reusable launch vehicles at present, it still needs competitors taking on the same challenge.

Maybe Round 3 will start with fire and smoke, (or at least water vapor.)


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2 Comments on "Musk V. Bezos Round II: SpaceX Challenges Blue Origin Sea Landing Patent"

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  1. “Filed” is the opposite of “received”. They received the patent on March 25, 2014.

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