As Bezos wins NASA contract to race Musk to put man on the Moon, the dark side of their 20-year feud
Outrageous egos battling each other across the cosmos? Check.
Sci-fi nerds who’ve definitely watched too much Star Trek? Check.
Humanity’s next chapter in a space left in the hands of insanely rich tech billionaires happy to take NASA’s tax-payer billions? Check.
This is Mission Control: We have lift-off!
Just a month after Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful rocket to date – the 400-ft long, $67 million Starship – only for it to explode mid-air just four minutes into flight, a phoenix has risen from the flames to bravely take on the quest for space travel.
Or at least, that may be how bitter rival Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos sees it.
On Friday, NASA awarded its space-exploration company Blue Origin a coveted $3.4 billion to build a ‘lunar lander’ to take astronauts to the Moon.
As part of NASA’s Artemis V mission, scheduled for 2029, the lunar lander will collect astronauts from a NASA outpost orbiting the Moon, take them down to the lunar surface – and then bring them back again.
But, given that Musk’s company is already working on doing precisely the same thing for the Artemis program, we now face the prospect of two of Silicon Valley’s most contentious figures competing head-on in a bizarre new 21st-century space race.
On Friday, NASA awarded Jeff Bezos’s space-exploration company Blue Origin a coveted $3.4 billion to build a ‘lunar lander’ to take astronauts to the Moon. (Pictured: Bezos after a spaceflight in 2021).
But, given that Elon Musk’s company is already working on doing precisely the same thing for the Artemis program, we now face the prospect of two of Silicon Valley’s most contentious figures competing head-on in a bizarre new space race. (Pictured: Musk in 2021).
And this is no ordinary commercial contest. These are two ultra-competitive international business titans, both of whom have held the title of world’s richest person, and whose fierce rivalry goes back two decades.
Most recently, in 2021, SpaceX beat Blue Origin and another US company, Dynetics, to win a $2.9 billion contract to build a lunar-lander version of its vast Starship rocket – called the Starship HLS (Human Landing System) – to put man back. on the Moon for the first time since 1972.
Last month’s SpaceX explosion was of an early unmanned test flight, with the lift-off date for the first manned flight, Artemis III, scheduled for as early as December 2025. Musk will also provide a lander for Artemis IV in 2028.
Bezos had been furious at the decision to award the first contract to Musk – especially since NASA had been expected to award two contracts. Blue Origin even tried to sue NASA in federal court, but lost.
Then, last September, after securing a larger budget from Congress, NASA announced it was reopening the competition (hence Friday’s news of Blue Origin’s new contract).
NASA has long faced criticism from US politicians questioning whether doling out government contracts to private companies run by billionaires like Bezos (worth $138.5 billion) and Musk ($180.7 billion) to indulge their space travel fantasies represents good value for money. (Though Blue Origin, at least, insists it will be contributing far more to the project than it will be getting from NASA.)
NASA administrator Bill Nelson has also stressed that having both Musk and Bezos on the job makes perfect sense.
‘We want more competition,’ he said on Friday. ‘It means that you have reliability. You have backups.
Last month’s SpaceX explosion was of an early unmanned test flight, with the lift-off date for the first manned flight, Artemis III, scheduled for as early as December 2025. (Pictured: Musk sat in control room during last month’s failed launch).
But, of course, it also means we will have a lot more sparks flying between two men who are used to coming out on top.
Bezos, now 59, launched Blue Origin in 2000 – while Musk, 51, founded Space Exploration Technologies, aka SpaceX, in 2002.
Bezos, a Star Trek fanatic since childhood, has long harbored ambitions about man’s future in outer space. He believes Earth’s resources will inevitably one day run out and so humanity must colonize the universe, perhaps living in miles-long floating cylindrical tubes. For some time, he’s been spending at least $1 billion a year on his rocket company.
Musk, meanwhile, is also a passionate sci-fi fan. And he too shares similar views on the necessity of looking beyond Earth – though he argues mankind’s survival ultimately depends on establishing a ‘self-sustaining civilization’ on Mars.
In the first of only a handful of moments in which they have met, the pair had dinner in 2004 to discuss their shared ambition of developing reusable rockets – seen as a crucial way of slashing the vast cost of space travel – but reportedly didn’t Get on from the start.
Musk said he felt Bezos was “barking up the wrong tree” with his ideas on rocket design.
‘Dude, we tried that and that turned out to be really dumb, so I’m telling you don’t do the dumb thing we did,’ Musk recalled telling his rival, claiming that though he did his ‘best to give good advice’ ‘, Bezos ‘largely ignored’ him.
Observers point out that the pair have fundamentally different approaches to spaceflight, as illustrated in their company mottos.
In the first of only a handful of moments in which they have met, the pair had dinner in 2004 (pictured) to discuss their shared ambition of developing reusable rockets.
Observers point out that the pair have fundamentally different approaches to spaceflight. (Pictured: A SpaceX engine test in February).
Blue Origin’s ‘coat of arms’ bears two tortoises and the motto, ‘Gradatim Ferociter’, Latin for ‘step by step, ferociously’.
SpaceX’s motto – ‘Head down. Plow through the line’ – reflects Musk’s more bullish, less cautious philosophy.
It was surely no surprise then that SpaceX was the first to launch a rocket, Falcon 1 (named, naturally, after Star Wars’ famous Millennium Falcon) just four years after the pair first met in 2008.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard, its first reusable ‘suborbital launch vehicle’, wouldn’t touch the edge of space until 2015.
In these early years, their rivalry remained largely private although Musk occasionally complained about Blue Origin’s tactic of poaching his staff by doubling their salaries.
Then in 2013, open hostilities properly broke out when Blue Origin filed an official protest at SpaceX’s efforts to win exclusive use of NASA’s launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center for its own rockets. To Bezos’ fury, the government decided in Musk’s favor.
The following year, it was Musk’s turn to call out the lawyers when SpaceX challenged Blue Origin’s newly-granted patent for landing rockets on water. SpaceX insisted the supposed invention was ‘old hat’ in the rocket-engineering industry. Again, US officials eventually sided with Musk.
In 2019, Bezos was particularly barbed about his rival, mocking his dream of Martian colonization during a private lecture: ‘My friends who want to move to Mars? I say do me a favor: Go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first and see if you like it, because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.’
In the early years, their rivalry largely remained private although Musk occasionally complained about Blue Origin’s tactic of poaching his staff by doubling their salaries. (Pictured: Mock-up of what Blue Origin launcher will look like on the Moon).
Then in 2013, open hostilities properly broke out when Blue Origin filed an official protest at SpaceX’s efforts to win exclusive use of NASA’s launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center for its own rockets. (Pictured: Mock-up of what SpaceX lander will look like on the Moon).
Three months later, Musk returned fire, this time using his favorite weapon: Twitter.
Following Blue Origin’s unveiling of its first lunar lander, Musk tweeted a picture of the craft, Blue Moon, only this time changing its name to ‘Blue Balls’. Try to imagine JFK sending Soviet rival Nikita Khrushchev the same sort of playground-level insult during the first space race of the 1960s.
But that unfortunately, say critics, such childish sniping is what comes of leaving so much of the running in the mission to return to the Moon – and beyond – to a couple of vainglorious tycoons who appear to treat space travel as just another outlet for their one-upmanship.
Things got particularly bad in 2021 when, just months after Musk overtook Bezos to become the world’s richest person, NASA awarded SpaceX the $2.9 billion lunar-lander contract.
Bezos angrily claimed NASA was ‘endangering’ America’s return to the Moon by stifling competition.
Musk’s response? Back to the schoolboy smut on Twitter with ‘Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol.’
After he lost his court battle to overturn NASA’s decision, Bezos licked his wounds and kept going, bolstering Blue Origin’s public recognition by taking celebrities (like William Shatner, star of Jeff’s beloved Star Trek) into zero gravity at the edge of space.
This sparked complaints in some quarters that space travel for the super-rich was rather less pressing than many of the problems we face down here on Earth. Not least among them being climate change – and experts say an 11-minute space flight can pump out as much as 75 tons of emissions, more than the average person creates in a lifetime.
Bezos (pictured, right) bolstered Blue Origin’s public recognition by taking celebrities like William Shatner (star of Jeff’s beloved Star Trek, pictured second from left) into zero gravity at the edge of space.
Shatner experiences weightlessness on board the Blue Origin flight in 2021.
But such criticism is unlikely to deter Musk and Bezos when they’re convinced they’re on a mission to save humanity.
Who will win?
Blue Moon insists it’s not a race but, whisper industry insiders, Bezos would say that given the lead that Musk already has over him with his lunar landers scheduled to launch years before the Bezos version.
On paper, Blue Moon is also some way behind when it comes to the tech. They’ve yet even to test launch a serious ‘heavy lift’ rocket capable of carrying people and payloads into space, for example. And sources say Musk is simply far more driven when it comes to space, while Bezos still sees it as something of a hobby.
However, Musk is also far more impulsive. And, like the slow-but-sure reptiles on his company coat of arms, Jeff Bezos may yet prove to be the tortoise that overtakes the hare.