January 08, 2005
Trouble for SpaceX?

Speaking of being too optimistic about entrepreneurial white knights:
El Segundo start-up fights Northrop

In an exchange of lawsuits, Northrop alleged that SpaceX had stolen trade secrets for an obscure rocket part. SpaceX alleged that Northrop "abused" its government-advisory role to obtain proprietary information. Both companies deny any wrongdoing.
Huh...imagine that.
SpaceX says costly litigation could cause the company to fail.
Well, at least they have an "out" if they decide to pull a Beal and bail on the whole undertaking.
Contractors playing such advisory roles are required by the Pentagon to ensure that their employees with access to another company's proprietary information are walled off from other employees working on rival projects.
I should think the Pentagon, if anyone, should have been cognizant of the fact that some rocket companies take proprietary information protection seriously, while others just take proprietary information.
At a design review in January, SpaceX executives became concerned that Northrop wasn't abiding by those restrictions. Gwynne Shotwell, head of business development at SpaceX, interrupted the meeting to ask Northrop participants whether any of them were involved in competing rocket programs. As many as five of the eight Northrop staffers raised their hands, she says.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting...
SpaceX alleged that as far back as March 2003, Northrop engaged in a "surreptitious" effort to spy on SpaceX to gain a competitive advantage.
Hmm...
Partly because of the dispute, the Air Force hasn't given the green light for SpaceX's first launch, which has been rescheduled for sometime next year.
Well, that helps to explain the continuing delay (though SpaceX spokespersons offer other reasons here, with no mention of an Air Force hold on the launch).

And if the cost of litigation isn't enough, the allegedly purloined technology itself may offer another "out":

Musk says he now regrets choosing the pintle technology -- but not because of the legal problems it spawned. Contrary to Northrop's claim that trade secrets enabled SpaceX to develop an engine in mere months, SpaceX hasn't achieved the performance it seeks. "We will get to our objectives, in spite of the bloody pintle," says Musk, who is already looking to scrap the part for another engine technology.
How about a hybrid?

Posted by T.L. James on January 8, 2005 02:39 PM

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