Clash of the billionaires: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos duking it out over space
A panel of administrative judges at an obscure federal agency ruled this week that a largely behind-the-scenes clash of billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeffrey Bezos can continue.
The dispute centers on a patent awarded to Bezos’s Blue Origin space company that gives it the right to launch rockets and land them on a barge in the ocean. But Musk’s SpaceX, which this year became the first company to attempt such a landing, challenged the patent, saying that the idea on how to pull off a landing at sea has been discussed in space circles for years.
This week, administrative judges at the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board agreed with SpaceX’s arguments — or most of them — and is allowing the issue to go to a full administrative hearing before the board.
Both companies declined to comment. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, also owns The Washington Post.
At stake is the right to pursue what many view as a potentially momentous breakthrough in space flight: the ability to launch a rocket into space, return it to Earth, and then launch it again as if it were a commercial airplane.
The ability to reuse rockets could dramatically lower the cost of space flight. And the first to do it could capitalize in a huge way.
Musk, who founded Tesla Motors and PayPal and has pioneered many innovations in electrical cars and e-commerce, is also focused on rocket reusability. SpaceX has been working on the technology for years, and in January it attempted the unprecedented feat of landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a floating barge it calls an autonomous spaceport droneship.
The rocket hit the platform and exploded. But making it to the barge was considered something of a triumph, and the company plans to try again.
If Blue Origin is able to hold on to its patent, SpaceX’s ability to carry out its plans could be cut short. But with the patent board’s ruling, that seems unlikely, said Andrew Rush, a patent lawyer specializing in aerospace who is not affiliated with the case.
He called it a “preliminary win” for SpaceX. The ruling “doesn’t necessarily mean that SpaceX will succeed; it means there’s a reasonable likelihood of success,” he said.
In a separate decision denying two of SpaceX’s claims, the judges said there was not enough specificity in Blue Origin’s patent, and therefore it could not reach a determination.
Before the patent fight, Musk and Bezos fought over which company would use a NASA launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center. After SpaceX won the lease, Blue Origin protested to the Government Accountability Office and lost. And Musk took a shot at Bezos’s start-up space company.
“If they do somehow show up in the next 5 years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs,” Musk wrote in an email published at SpaceNews.com. “Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”
The Blue Origin suborbital spacecraft, New Shepard, has never been launched into space, but Bezos said recently that crewed flights could take place at the end of the decade.
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