A Space Opera: The Fight for Space Funding

By Keerthana P, Edited By Niyanta Desai

Source: Bold Business ( 2018, May 3). https://www.boldbusiness.com/transportation/blue-origin-vs-spacex-will-space/

On August 19th, 2021, billionaire Jeff Bezos’s private aerospace company Blue Origin filed a lawsuit against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US Court of Federal Claims. The lawsuit comes as a response to NASA’s decision to supply $2.9 billion in funding to rival Elon Musk’s SpaceX for its Human Lander System (HLS) (NASA, 2021). The two agencies plan to jointly design a lunar lander that will return astronauts to the moon after 49 years of human absence.

This legal battle can be considered the newest chapter in the long-running billionaire space race. Wealthy individuals and corporations have fought tooth and nail in the race to privatize space, and over the years, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have risen to be its most prominent and determined players. Their fundamental space ideologies, however, differ quite a bit.

Musk once jokingly remarked, “I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.” In a nutshell, Musk sees outer space as an escape route for humanity when humans inevitably exhaust Earth’s resources, and climate change reshapes our maps, whereas Bezos aspires to create a vibrant ‘space economy’ with millions of humans employed around the solar system.

NASA and Musk share a common end goal; creating a human colony on Mars. NASA had initially planned to fund two agencies as a part of the Artemis program but decided to go with just SpaceX due to lack of available money and because its demand of $2.9 billion was significantly lower than those of its competitors. Bezos denounced this decision in a long, open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, claiming “.....this new approach won’t create true competition because it is rushed, it is unfunded, and it provides a multi-year head-start to the one funded, single-source supplier” (Bezos, 2021).

Losing the lunar lander contract served as a massive letdown to Blue Origin, which was till late was considered a frontrunner along with SpaceX and fellow private aerospace company Dynetics. In order to understand the rationale behind this lawsuit, it is important to understand how the two agencies have historically received their funding. SpaceX relies on state funding and contracts with government and commercial agencies, whereas Bezos has personally financed Blue Origin since its inception in 2000. An additional source of revenue for SpaceX is their satellite internet service Starlink and partially reusable rockets such as the Falcon 9.

If Blue Origin was always privately funded by the richest man in the world, why are they so upset over NASA’s decision? According to industry expert Laura Forczyk (Founder, Astralytical), Bezos is stringent with his finances and has been reluctant to put in the money required to expedite many of Blue Origin’s confidential projects. This could be why his organization is technologically behind its competitor, as is evident when looking at each company’s highest recorded space flight. While Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft has flown up to an altitude of about 100.5 km, SpaceX’s Super Heavy and Starship have crossed what is considered the edge of space and flown beyond Earth’s orbit.

The NASA contract would, in theory, have provided Blue Origin with the required funds to accelerate its technology and mechanics. Another area where Blue Origin is at a disadvantage is in terms of public perception. In July, Bezos, his brother Mark, veteran astronaut Wally Funk and 18-year-old student Oliver Daemen traveled to suborbital space aboard New Shepard in what the public saw as a flamboyant joyride. Bezos’s status as the richest man alive, misadventures with his other enterprises such as Amazon, and his cavalier persona naturally invite the public’s ire upon all his business ventures. However, it is not as though SpaceX enjoys a stellar reputation. The sheer magnitude of Elon Musk’s celebrity and his infamous internet presence also impacts SpaceX’s public perception. His dream of terraforming Mars has long been dismissed as an unrealistic fantasy by most experts, with Astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees dismissing it as a “dangerous delusion” (World Government Summit, 2021). Added to this is the fact that the Starship prototypes have yet to make safe landings without partially exploding.

NASA and SpaceX have paused the HLS program until November 1st as the US Court of Federal Claims arbitrates the lawsuit. The legal procedure so far has proven to be long and tedious, with the US Department of Justice requesting a four-day extension on September 3rd to paginate 1700 documents amounting to a staggering 16 GB of storage space (Business Insider, 2021). If legal setbacks persist, the HLS program will likely face further delays to its start, thus derailing the goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024.

As for Blue Origin, this public legal feud is further tarnishing their already tainted reputation. Nitin Arora, the lead engineer of the company’s HLS team, recently jumped ship to work for SpaceX. The suit will also hinder the company’s ability to secure future government contracts. However, it is still too early to tell the long-term consequences of these hostile actions for Blue Origin. Will SpaceX emerge victoriously in this battle for reigning supreme in space, or will Blue Origin, the underdog, make a surprising comeback? Only time and space will tell.


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