JPL and Industry

The patent issue reflected increasing attention to the relation between government-funded research and the private sector. Public concern about American industrial competitiveness, especially with the thriving economies of Japan and Western Europe, had spurred new policies to help transfer technologies from government labs to industry. The Bayh-Dole act of 1980 encouraged contractors to patent the results of federally funded research and thus supported NASA's policy of letting Caltech patent JPL inventions, and the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 promoted Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, or CRADAs, between government labs and industrial firms; similar joint projects with industry had sparked the discussion over patent policy.43

The commercialization of space made it a site of economic as well as military competition. In 1982 NASA's Robert Allnut announced the dawn of a new "commercial era" in space: the booming market in communications satellites was spilling over into launch vehicles, and new markets were emerging in remote sensing and space manufacturing. The Reagan administration meanwhile made privatization a cornerstone of national space policy.44 NASA, JPL, and the lab's other sponsors thus sought to encourage technology transfer from such programs as microelectronics, but first they debated how and when to transfer—for instance, by sending people along with their ideas to industry for development, or by releasing technologies after they reached the prototype production stage. The hypercube program provided just one prominent example of a technology incorporated into commercial products through a series of licensing agreements.45

Technology transfer, of course, did not extend to international competitors, at least in theory. Spacecraft systems and components were defined as export-controlled technology. NASA's concerns over technology exports affected international cooperation on space projects, an objective otherwise encouraged. In 1982 Hitachi approached JPL about helping develop synthetic aperture radar systems for Japan. Burton Edelson, the space science manager at NASA, strongly urged Allen to terminate the discussions because of the economic as well as military potential of the radar: "I would hate to see NASA embarrassed by charges that we had created a first-class capability and then encouraged it to compete with U.S. industry." Allen agreed to stop the talks with Hitachi, but he noted that NASA itself "has indicated clearly that it desires more participation by foreign groups in space science projects" and furthermore that the military had sought a greater role for Japan in mutual defense. He added, "It is unrealistic to presume that foreign governments do not have technological advances in mind when they agree to be major participants in space projects."46 Fears of international technology transfer similarly reduced Caltech-JPL collaboration, which NASA likewise sought to encourage. The agency refused to let JPL hire Caltech students who were foreign nationals, which in fields like electrical engineering excluded up to half the students. JPL and Caltech fought these restrictions, and others on publication of technology research, with little success. Allen, however, would win some relief by chairing a National Academy of Sciences panel on export controls in 1987, whose recommendations for relaxed controls influenced congressional revision of the Export Policy Act.47

JPL's internal growth also affected relations with industry by reviving the old make-or-buy question. The need to keep staff levels stable while accepting more programs encouraged managers to subcontract work instead of performing it in-house. The commercialization of space reinforced this tendency. Against both of these trends ran the sense that JPL was an engineering organization, and that the shift to managing contracts would erode the technical capabilities of the lab.48

Amid these developments, Allen in 1988 asked his friend Albert Wheelon to spend a few days at JPL assessing its capabilities. Wheelon, surprisingly enough for an industry leader, did not dispute JPL's desire for in-house work. His philosophy at Hughes was never to leave mission-critical components to contractors; if you had to have something done right, build it yourself. And when JPL did farm out work, Wheelon advised, it should pick the right contractors. For some components, such as spacecraft transponders, JPL seemed to settle for second-best. And why go to industry in the first place? Transponders were critical; a silent spacecraft is worthless. Industrial contractors catered to the military and communications markets for earth-orbiting satellites, whose transponders had much shorter ranges and wider band-widths than planetary spacecraft. Despite Wheelon's advice, JPL continued to rely on the same supplier, perhaps because of an unspoken preference for a pliable contractor, one whose engineers would more easily accept technical oversight without questioning decisions handed down from the lab.49


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