On the 25th of May 2012, something unique happened for the very first time. A vehicle docked with the International Space Station carrying food, computers, water, some student experiments and the ashes of Star Trek actor James Doohan (Scotty).

The docking of a cargo mission to the station was not unique. What was unique was that the vehicle was a private spacecraft, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, launched on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and was powered by SpaceX’s Merlin rocket engines.

What truly made this docking at the ISS a milestone is that finally, private spaceflight became a reality.

More recently, on the 8th of April 2016, SpaceX successfully completed a powered landing of the Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship called ‘Of Course I Still Love You’, located 300km out to sea. The mission was successful and the rocket was ready for reuse.

Space travel is undergoing something of a renaissance.  We are experiencing a second ‘space race’ that is advancing rapidly. But unlike the first space race of the 1960’s, wherein countries were competing to lead the contest, today it is companies and their owners and backers that are setting the pace.

Patent volumes, 1960 to present, commercial applicant versus government applicant
Figure 1: Patent volumes, 1960 to present, commercial applicant versus government applicant

At CPA Global, our Innovation Intelligence Services group uses patent information as a proxy to measure what is going on in technology-enabled industries, from chemicals, automotive, biosciences and telecommunication, and, in this case, rocket science.

We use patents because of one simple fact. Patents are the only data source that provides the required technological detail and accuracy, while being intimately tied to commerce. They are technical documents that exist only to provide their owner commercial advantage.

In preparing our manned space flight report, the question we posed was this: Can patent data shed light on an industry that is as cutting edge as it is niche? The answer was a definitive “yes”.

Our Innovation Intelligence Services team analysed 4,300 patents stretching all the way back to the beginning of the space era in the early 1960’s. In doing so, we discovered that the commercialisation of space access is a clear trend, particularly in the United States (Figure 1). Going deeper into the information, we unearthed that what is being commercially developed is just as interesting as who is developing it.

Taken in aggregate, the private sector is now working on technologies that 30 years ago were the domain of NASA, including spacecraft propulsion systems, astronaut training simulators, on-orbit tools and the design of spacecraft themselves.

Commercial Sector
Figure 2: Commercial Sector Compared to Governmental Sector by Technologies, Then vs Now

Interestingly, while SpaceX is at the forefront of this trend, it is not actually part of the data point. SpaceX follows a trade secret approach to technology protection, called a “no-IP” approach, and does not patent any of its R&D developments. Regardless, the patent information speaks volumes, offering vital insight on the direction of the industry.

It also tells us who is active in this space, including Microsoft, French aerospace firm Safran, defence contractor Raytheon, new player Blue Origin (owned by founder Jeff Bezos), as well as traditional aerospace firms such as Boeing and Airbus. Additionally, the report shows us the near monopoly of space access technologies in Russia by Energia. Plus, it reveals the high level and fast growing patent activities by Chinese universities.

We uncovered some risk to SpaceX’s "no-IP" approach to its business. In particular, a patent from competitor Blue Origin, which read very similar to the sea landing system used by SpaceX (Figure 3). This led to the first next-generation legal battle, fought at the US Patent and Trademark Office, that ultimately saw SpaceX successfully nullify the Blue Origin patent (though questions as to the sustainability of the trade secret strategy remain).

Figure 3: Blue Origin Patent Detail, and photo of recent SpaceX Landing
Figure 3: Blue Origin Patent Detail, and photo of recent SpaceX Landing

Finally, we spent some time looking at the nature of intellectual property rights being registered in the manned spaceflight sector, and how they compared to aviation, a similar sector that has more traditional and mature IP strategies.

We looked at four measures, and set our baseline year to 2010:

  • Commitment by applicants in securing IP rights (% of applications granted and active),
  • CPA Global’s PatentStrength™ score,
  • Geographic breadth of patent protection (a proxy for cash investment in IP rights),
  • Number of times patent rights are cited downstream (a traditional patent proxy metric for impact and value).

On every measure, the commercial manned spaceflight dataset outscored the aviation industry, indicating that this is an increasingly vibrant, growing and intense sector for IP development and ownership (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Commercial Manned Spaceflight Compared to Aviation Generally Based on 4 Measures
Figure 4: Commercial Manned Spaceflight Compared to Aviation Generally Based on 4 Measures

To see the detail and the insights for yourself, download our Technology Intelligence Report on Commercial Manned Spaceflight.

The methods we used in this study have been developed at CPA Global to help guide and inform innovators and their organisations to navigate complex and dynamic technical fields. Our work uses the full breadth of expertise and talent in our Innovation Intelligence Services team, accompanied by our technologists and advanced statistical frameworks, so that our clients and all their stakeholders can gain insight into the unknown – changing industries, changing technologies and changing strategies.

To learn more, contact