SpaceX will reap the benefits of new Dragon research opportunity

SpaceX will become the co-owner of valuable data, biological samples, and possibly even patents and intellectual property related to human spaceflight, according to the terms and conditions of a new program inviting research on crewed Dragon missions.

The company started quietly inviting proposals “for exceptional science and research ideas that will enable life in space and on other planets,” to be executed on orbit using its Dragon spacecraft capsule. Specifically, SpaceX says its looking for research studies and experiments focused on fitness, or solutions to increase “efficiency and effectiveness,” and those focused on human health during long-duration spaceflight missions.

Selected research study groups would have access to SpaceX’s crewed Dragon missions, opening up a whole new use case for one of the company’s core products.

The company has discussed using Dragon as an orbital lab, similar to the ISS, going back a decade. Evidently, the business case didn’t make sense until recently. But by platforming on orbit research, the company would also gain access to valuable data in addition to any fees or other conditions presented to customers.

In the research collaboration terms and conditions, SpaceX states that it and the entity behind the scientific research will “jointly own” rights to all data recorded and samples obtained during the course of the research on orbit — regardless of whether or not this information was captured by SpaceX itself or the research institution. The document further specifies that all “technology” — which is expansively defined to include software, inventions, proprietary information and more — developed jointly by SpaceX and the research institution shall be jointly owned.

The agreement also states that the technology would be jointly owned “without accounting to the other parties,” legal language that means that each party could essentially commercialize or license the technology without any duty or obligation to the other party.

“Each party can license to anybody else, [though] they can’t give an exclusive license to anyone else, because they don’t have exclusive rights themselves,” Steven Wood, an attorney specializing in space law at Vela Wood, explained in a recent interview. “They can independently commercialize, and they have no duty or obligation to share any of the proceeds with the other party.”

There are clear exceptions: the document specifies that any technology developed solely using the researchers’ own equipment (defined here as equipment used “for the measurement, recording and transmission of data”) is owned solely by the researcher; but even in this case, the data and samples would still clearly be jointly owned.

These are fairly standard terms for patents and inventions in this context, Wood explained, and shared ownership of data and samples is also not out-of-bounds. But it reveals that commercializing Dragon would provide SpaceX with far more than just revenue.

“Expanding the light of consciousness”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has always been explicit about the company’s core goal: making human life multi-planetary, starting with Mars. The company has made considerable headway towards its mission, with the most visible example being the massive Starship rocket, which is being designed with deep space travel in mind. SpaceX has conducted two orbital flight tests of Starship, and is poised to conduct a third some time this month.

But getting to Mars is just one half of the problem. As NASA pointed out earlier this month — and SpaceX leadership no doubt understands — astronauts going to the Red Planet will face serious physical and psychological risks. As NASA most recently summarized in a white paper released last week, dangers of interplanetary travel can include exposure to high levels of radiation, the physiological effects of differing gravity environments, and long-term exposure to isolation and confining environments.

NASA has spent years studying the effects of microgravity on the human body. But the agency is clear that the risks are very different for astronauts who stay on the ISS for six months or even a year (which may not be so bad after all) versus those who may embark on a multi-year roundtrip to Mars.

Given SpaceX’s ambitions, it only makes sense that the company wants to platform even more research into solutions that could reduce these risks – and better set up their own mission to Mars for success.

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