Embarking into the great unknown of space is perhaps mankind’s greatest and most challenging quest. However, in the modern era where commercial enterprises are entering into the great race, competition is hotting up, and as with any industry, there is plenty of room for foul play and corruption.
A Fair Fight
Commercial space companies work closely with domestic and international governments who regulate the industry, distribute funding, and ultimately have the final say in any space-related project. With entities such as NASA, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) collaborating, competing and innovating, there is a grand opportunity for extraordinary progress in what is one of the most exciting and scientifically challenging endeavours humanity has ever embarked upon.
That said, as with any industry with gigantic competitors, there is going to be a fair share of bad actors and suspicious activities, and the space industry is no exception to this despite the humanitarian ethos that rests at the core of the mission. Competition certainly spurs innovation, but more often than not these battles are fought with underhanded methods, interrupted by greed, personal gain, and sheer sharp practice.
Best Laid Plans
Whilst this may be ‘part of the game’ when it comes to winning the race, it creates contention and uncertainty, causing major setbacks for huge projects that take years to plan and execute, not to mention the funds required to make such visions a reality. In 2007 it was reported by The New York Times that NASA had to postpone a shot to Mars due to “an undisclosed conflict of interest” which revolved around two final mission proposals causing the mission the be delayed by two years due to the nature of Earth and Mars being within efficient range of each other every 26 months. Dough McCuistion who at the time was the Director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program stated that the conflict of interest was unspecified and it was a matter he couldn’t, or at least refused to discuss.
To this day, NASA still struggles to maintain confidentiality and bad actors away from their projects. Recently, the FBI arrested Simon Saw-Teong Ang, an Arkansas professor working with NASA on the grounds that he had failed to disclose ties to Chinese entities which was revealed when a hard-drive containing communications between Ang and visiting researcher from Xidian University in China was discovered. He was charged with wire fraud on the suspicion of sharing research data belonging to the United States with Chinese organizations, amongst other allegations if found guilty he faces up to twenty years in prison.
The stature of NASA makes it a highly vulnerable organization with it being at the forefront of space projects. The theft of trade secrets, proprietary technology and intellectual property have been demonstrably plaguing the world’s most famous space agency, and it is unlikely that these battles will cease anytime soon.
In an ideal world, the space-race and all the technological marvels it produces would be open-source and available for all. A gigantic collaboration between major nations who evidently benefit from gathering knowledge on each other’s works. However, political discourse is often rife with conflict, especially on the global stage, and to reveal every secret could indeed make any nation or competitor extremely vulnerable to a plethora of nefarious activities.
Even domestic companies are at odds, with competitors fighting for lucrative contracts on home soil. Again, whilst this open market creates true innovation, there are plenty of firms who wish to not only beat out competitors but stifle them also.
Take for example US-based firm Capella Space which has been under fire in a trial that has so far lasted almost two years. Allegedly, the firm that specialises in high-resolution radar imagining from satellites has been embroiled in a trial which accuses them of stealing patents, copyright infringement and even bankrupting partners.
In this instance, a DaHGR deployable reflector antenna had been patented in 2015 by MMA Design LLC. At the time the firm was co-owned by Thomas J. Harvey who owned 50% of the firm and was responsible for co-authoring all patents. It garnered a great deal of attention from multiple space companies and as a result, Capella Space and Finnish firm ICEYE contacted MMA Design with the desire to purchase two of the said antenna for testing and consultation for their own developments.
However, Harvey then established his own consulting firm TJ Harvey Engineering LLC (TJHE), and after a short period of time and a brief vacation in Espoo where ICEYE is based, Harvey returned and copied approximately 10,000 MMA Design LLC files, despite not being the sole owner of said developments. So he had stolen design documentation from his partner and was in cahoots with ICEYE.
Capella was in negotiations with MMA Design for the antenna reaching an agreement for a 40% cash price, and a 60% stake. Eventually, this deal fell flat when Capella failed to supply the shares to MMA Design, and within a number of days, Capella began collaborating with TJHE, the firm belonging to the man who stole the DaHGR documentation, creating an extremely favourable circumstance for Capella, who was eventually granted permission to launch the test satellites as well as securing millions in investment, despite the conflict with MMA Design.
In late 2018, MMA Design filed a lawsuit against Capella Space and Tom Harvey for copyright infringement, and to this day the lawsuit continues.
SpaceX, Elon Musk’s most ambitious enterprise, had been competing for contracts to put a US Air Force (UAF) satellite into orbit in 2014, and lost. Being the maverick he is, he publicly called out the UAF for favouring competitors on the grounds of corruption.
Musk stated that the United Launch Alliance (ULA) had been awarded a contract worth billions due to one man, defence official Roger “Scott” Correl, who after his retirement was swiftly hired into Aerojet Rocketdyne to handle government relations, a firm that builds rocket engines for ULA.
According to Musk, Correl was offered the role on the basis that he provided ULA/Rocketdyne with “a sole source contract”. This was somewhat out of spite because Musk believes that Correl had previously tried to work at SpaceX and was “turned down”.
Whilst the ULA hadn’t made any comments on the matter, Rocketdyne was quick to respond, writing at the time:
”those allegations are completely without merit. We are confident of the process that we followed in hiring Mr. Correll. Mr. Correll received the necessary clearances and approvals from DOD, and his duties and actions on behalf of Aerojet Rocketdyne are consistent with those clearances and approvals.”
In the UK, speculation of corruption and personal interest has also recently been raised as the UK prepares to build a robust space programme, which includes the establishment of spaceports across the country, and the first-ever vertical rocket launch into orbit from British soil.
After awarding £5.5 million to space-firm Orbex, Catriona Francis, a UK government official who was the grants manager for the UKSA and ran her own company Catriona Francis LTD, a private company that operated in the field of “other transportation support activities“, left her position to then go and join Orbex, becoming their International Liaison Director.
Having closed her firm when leaving the UKSA, it begs the question, what did the company actually do, and was her grant to Orbex based on a similar principle to that of Correl, who may have been offered the role so long as she provided Orbex with the aforementioned grant.
Personal Gain, Competition Pain
Regardless of the numerous laws and regulations that prevent firms from creating monopolies, illegally acquiring intellectual property or simply bribery, it appears that in many instances these troubles fall through the cracks somehow, allowing for fraudulent activities to become almost commonplace in an industry that thrives on collaboration. Definitively answering these accusations of corruption and theft requires some time and perhaps, as in the case of Simon Saw-Teong Ang, a slip-up that reveals a series of damning activities.
However, it must be reiterated that striving towards the stars should be, and could be, an industry where fraudulent and nefarious activities can be minimised should the appropriate actions be taken by third-party domestic and international watchdogs who, alongside governments, can stamp out such behaviours, all for the betterment of humanity and the ultimate goal of exploring the great unknown.