Jan. 8, 2016
– A lawsuit filed by the former concessionaire for Yosemite National Park against the federal government has raised a seemingly unrelated query: Who owns Space Shuttle Atlantis?
The retired NASA winged orbiter, which flew 33 out of the 135 missions of the 30-year shuttle program, including the final flight in July 2011, has been on permanent display at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida for the past two and a half years.
The closest that Atlantis ever came to Yosemite in its three decades of existence was about 250 miles (400 km) — the altitude (more or less) that it orbited above the Earth, and, by sheer coincidence, the distance separating the national park from Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the shuttle sometimes landed from space.
But in a response to a lawsuit over the value of Yosemite-related trademarks registered by DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite (DNCY), the park's concessionaire until this year, the U.S. Justice Department raised a concern.
NASA's retired shuttle Atlantis as exhibited at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (LaunchPhotography.com)
"DNCY's parent company has apparently embarked on a business model whereby it collects [the] trademarks to the names of iconic property owned by the United States," wrote Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Mizer in a Jan. 4 answer to the lawsuit. "Thus, for example, DNC [Delaware North Companies], which has a concession at the Kennedy Space Center, has a trademark application for the words 'Space Shuttle Atlantis.'"
The filing was first reported by The Fresno Bee newspaper in California in an article about the $44 million DNCY was claiming for the Yosemite trademarks.
Space Shuttle Atlantis™
Space shuttle Atlantis was named after a sailboat, the RV Atlantis, which was the first and primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from 1931 through 1964. The fourth of NASA's space shuttle fleet to enter service, Atlantis first launched in October 1985.
Atlantis' name, like the names of the other space shuttles and a majority of NASA's other spacecraft, is in the public domain. NASA does not trademark its vehicles' monikers.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. (NASA)
But DNC Parks & Resorts at KSC, Inc., which since 1995 has operated the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for NASA, did, in fact, file for the trademark "Space Shuttle Atlantis" in 2013. The service mark was registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on April 1 the following year.
"The service mark is just for the logo for retail [use]," said Therrin Protze, the chief operating officer at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, in a call with collectSPACE on Friday (Jan. 8). "Working with NASA, the attraction was named 'Space Shuttle Atlantis,' because that is obviously what the orbiter is in there."
Opened to the public in June 2013, the five-story-tall, $100 million Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit showcases the orbiter as it appeared when it was in orbit above the Earth. The spacecraft is mounted 30 feet (9 m) high at a 43.21 degree angle with its payload bay doors open.
"In conjunction with NASA, Delaware North created the logo for the attraction," Protze explained. "Just that is the service mark only, so that we can utilize it for retail from an exclusive matter and also for the attraction, so others can't name another [exhibit] 'Space Shuttle Atlantis' — not that they would."
A selection of "Space Shuttle Atlantis" lapel pins and keychains as sold at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (collectSPACE)
"It is just typical business practice to service mark that logo with the attraction name," he said.
Like the rest of the visitor complex, no taxpayer funds were used to pay for the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction. The exhibit is funded by ticket and concession sales, including a plethora of souvenirs bearing the Space Shuttle Atlantis logo.
NASA's three other orbiters, Discovery, Endeavour and the prototype Enterprise, were awarded in 2011 to their display homes. Discovery is now the property of the Smithsonian, the California Science Center holds the title to Endeavour and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City owns Enterprise.
Atlantis was awarded to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, but as that facility is owned by NASA, the orbiter remained federal property.
Who owns space shuttle Atlantis? NASA does.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction trademarked logo. (KSCVC)
But who owns the trademark to "Space Shuttle Atlantis"?
"Based on our contract, we are the arm for NASA, so we apply for all of these trademark and service marks," Protze said, referring to Delaware North Companies. "But, if we're not retained as the concessionaire moving forward, then all that is a name transfer to the new concessionaire."
"We own absolutely no service mark or trademarks here at the complex," Protze stated. "There would be no fees, we would just walk away. The new concessionaire would do a name transfer for all of the service and trademarks that are associated with the complex."