The Commercialization of JPL

The lab's tilt away from Caltech and toward NASA indicated in part its integration into the federal government, but even more it represented a shift from its original academic background to an industrial environment. The affliction of audits in the 1990s forced the lab to comply with procurement regulations and other rules developed for industrial contractors. JPL was indeed a contractor, but it was not the same thing as an aerospace company. Federal auditors nevertheless squeezed JPL's square peg into a round industry hole and thus squeezed its independence and distorted its technical focus.65 The embrace of reengineering and the hiring of a chief financial officer represented JPL's efforts to adhere to industrial standards and techniques. More generally, faster-better-cheaper brought more of an industrial mindset, where cost became the driving factor for deep-space missions instead of success-at-any-price.66

Several others factors also helped to commercialize JPL. The post-cold war environment that encouraged the celebration of the private sector also sparked an entrepreneurial spirit, which impelled efforts to apply JPL technologies to civilian products. The usual route ran through patents, which Caltech would license to industry for a fee or royalties. The number of licenses rose more or less steadily starting in the early 1990s, especially for software, which increased from about 10 in 1992 to 180 by 1996.67 A few years earlier the lab had also started programs for "technology affiliates" and other cooperative agreements with industry, under which JPL helped firms, usually small companies, develop new technologies. The lab had thirty corporations as technology affiliates by 1992, sixty by 1994, most of them not from the aerospace industry but seeking help in such fields as software, robotics, microdevices, or remote sensing.68 Licensing activity greatly increased after the institute created an office of technology transfer in 1995; by the late 1990s Caltech was reaping more than a million dollars in annual revenue from JPL products, most from software licenses.69

Another approach emerged amid the entrepreneurial buzz of the late 1990s: instead of transferring specific technologies, JPL started spinning off people and their ideas in small start-up companies. Since small start-ups lacked capital for license fees, Caltech began a "grubstake" grant program for start-ups, with an equity stake retained by the institute. By 1998 JPL had generated six start-up companies. But the firms cost the lab in loss of people. In 1998, for example, Carl Kukkonen, the architect of JPL's microelectronics program, left to start a company called ViaSpace, and he sought to bring some key people with him. Caltech agreed but asked that he keep his recruiting within reasonable bounds; Kukkonen agreed, but it was a voluntary gesture.70

The microelectronics program provided a prime example of spin-off. In the early 1990s a JPL team led by Eric Fossum developed a solid-state image sensor called the active pixel sensor, which connected an electronic amplifier to every pixel in an image and used the CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) process to put the entire camera on a chip. A CMOS image sensor thus used much less power than a CCD camera and could also be much smaller. In 1995 Fossum and his wife, Sabrina Kemeny, left JPL to form Photobit Corporation, with a license from Caltech for the CMOS sensor; they soon led an industry that ranged from an ingestible "camera in a pill" for medical diagnosis to the cameras used in mobile phones. The sale of the company several years later made Fossum and Kemeny millionaires, and Caltech netted its own tidy profit.71

Photobit exemplified the new justifications for the space program: high technology as a source for economic growth. But it also suggested some resistance to the commercial spirit at JPL. Lab managers initially resisted such spin-offs, and not only for fear of losing staff and the distraction from the main job of building spacecraft. They worried that NASA auditors, despite the Bayh-Dole act promoting technology transfer, would charge that individuals were profiting from government-funded research. It took the intervention of the Caltech president and trustees to overcome JPL's discouragement of Photobit, and although the lab would later come to celebrate Photobit's success, concern about the private-public divide continued to dampen its embrace of entrepreneurialism. At the same time, many of the technology licenses derived from the Microdevices Lab and thus represented another legacy of defense work, but as military investment receded in the 1990s it threatened to dry up the flow of commercial technologies.72

JPL also continued to intersect the aerospace industry in spacecraft development. Agitation by the aerospace industry for JPL to contract out spacecraft work instead of performing it in-house increased in this period. Maturing aerospace firms continued to challenge JPL's technical superiority, and after the end of the cold war they also looked to make up for their declining military business with NASA contracts.73 Furthermore, if privatizing was the mantra of the 1990s, industry could argue that contract operation was only a half-step away from the government; why not go all the way to the private sector?

These factors helped revive the make-or-buy question—that is, should JPL build spacecraft itself or buy them from industry. The usual arguments for in-house work, including doubts about industry's technical competence and the need to be a "smart buyer," had resulted in the assumption that JPL should have one big in-house project at all times. The Cassini project followed Galileo as a mostly in-house project, as was Pathfinder. It did not help that Mars Observer, a system-mode contract, failed in 1993. Although Magellan, likewise a system contract, succeeded, JPL had pulled much of its radar system in-house after the radar contractor ran into technical problems.74 In 1993 Stone hired an outside consulting firm to study the "make versus buy" issue. The firm's report concluded that "by almost all measures, JPL should be expanding its reliance on outside suppliers of technology." Industry had multiple suppliers, who would benefit from technology transfer, and infrequent deep-space missions taxed JPL's ability to maintain in-house expertise. If the lab did not make the shift on its own, NASA and Congress would no doubt impose it from above. The report acknowledged that the "shift from the end-to-end builder of spacecraft to the manager of missions" would make JPL "a very different place in five years," not least by redefining it as a source of "management effectiveness rather than internal technical expertise."75

The issue involved the basic identity of JPL: was it management or engineering? Lab staff stuck to their technical identity. When Ed Stone asked John Casani in 1995 to consider what JPL would look like with no in-house development—what disciplines to renounce, what jobs to cut—Casani considered the likely reception of the exercise and called it a "suicide mission."76 Faster-better-cheaper and downsizing, however, were providing additional impetus. Discovery missions removed the possibility of one big project sustaining staff and provided more of an opening for industrial participation, and downsizing encouraged shifting the burden of maintaining staff to industry.77 The lab had meanwhile developed a new approach to address problems of contracting. In the late 1980s the executive council raised the possibility of an "associate contractor," a single firm with something like a five-year, renewable contract for a series of projects. A longer-term commitment would overcome JPL's lack of trust, allow the contractor to invest in staff and facilities, avoid detailed negotiations for every project, allow informal relations to replace formal contacts, and in general promote continuity.78 In the eyes of both JPL and industry the problem was "cultural," not legal or contractual: JPL needed to get over its pride and accept industry as an equal collaborator.79

In the 1990s this concept evolved into the approach known as "partnering." Lab staff did note several pitfalls. The lack of competition for contracts would invite complacency in the partner and lead other potential contractors to drop out of the business, eliminating potential sources of new ideas.80 The end result might be a monopoly, surely not the sort of thing JPL or the federal government wanted. JPL nevertheless in 1997 entered a ten-year partnership in its Mars program with Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver. The company had built the Viking landers and the Magellan spacecraft; when it won the contract to build an orbiter and lander to launch to Mars in 1998, JPL agreed to buy subsequent spacecraft for launches in 2001, 2003, and 2005, assuming the company performed well and NASA funded the program. Even the losing bidders in industry reportedly agreed that a single competition for a ten-year, $500-million program was better than one every two years for $100 million; they just disagreed with JPL's choice of contractor.81 The partnership included JPL's maintaining long-term staff in Denver, Lockheed's participating in Mars program planning and contributing technology developed with its own discretionary funds, and both sides aligning their organizations.82 The upshot was the further integration of JPL and industry.

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