Battle of the Billionaires: The Clash Between Elon Musk & Jeff Bezos Over NASA

On April 16, 2021, NASA announced that they had selected Elon Musk and his SpaceX program to be the recipient of a new $2.89 billion contract to secure the first woman and next man on the moon in 2024. SpaceX seemed like an obvious choice for NASA as they had previously collaborated in November of 2020 when the Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich was successfully sent into orbit via the SpaceX Falcon. But this time, SpaceX faced competition from the Bezos funded space venture Blue Origin.

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After the results came in, Bezos filed a protest with the Government Accounting Office, accusing NASA of playing favorites. In classic Musk fashion, he tweeted a jab at Bezos and his Blue Origin program, taking the opportunity to challenge his manhood in the process. Musk tweeted, “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol”

The Tweet received a variety of coverage and responses from press outlets and Twitter followers. Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith responded to the Tweet and the challenges from NASA, calling the decision “fundamentally unfair”. While Musk continues testing out some humor for his upcoming Saturday Night Live debut, taking a look back at the history of both companies, and NASA’s budget concerns, help to demonstrate why Musk and SpaceX were chosen over the Bezos endeavor Blue Origin.

A Brief History of SpaceX

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In 1999, Musk founded a financial service company called X.com which, after a year, merged with a company founded by Peter Thiel to create PayPal. Musk initially served as CEO of PayPal, but in October of the same year, he had differing views from the other co-founders plans for the future. Musk was then fired from the company by the board of directors. While still retaining a majority of shares at the company, Musk received $180 million when PayPal was sold to eBay in 2002. Musk was eager to move on to more innovative projects and in the same year that he made $180 million, he founded SpaceX.

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Elon Musk’s initial intention for SpaceX was to “make life multi-planetary”. With ambitious goals and diverse interests (Musk had founded Tesla just a year later), he told audiences at the 2018 South by Southwest festival that both companies almost went bankrupt in 2008. The year was plagued by challenges including a third failure of attempting to launch the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket. With only about $40 million left, Musk chose to split his wealth evenly and continued to invest in both companies. After three failed attempts, Musk’s Falcon 1 rocket eventually reached orbit in September of 2008, making it the first privately-developed fully liquid-fueled launch vehicle to go into orbit around the Earth. The following year, SpaceX launched their Falcon 9 rocket and their Dragon spacecraft.

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But then in 2015, new challenges arose for the space company. It was reported that SpaceX lost more than a quarter of a billion dollars due to a botched cargo run en route to the International Space Station and a subsequent grounding of its Falcon 9 rocket fleet. 2016 provided several rebounds for the company. In April, SpaceX made history by landing a Flacon 9’s first stage booster onto the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean. In December, the company made history again when the Falcon 9 celebrated a one year anniversary for having completed a stage one landing, becoming the first rocket to ever do so after delivering a payload into orbit.

The company continued to flourish from that point forward. They completed 18 launches in 2017 and 22 launches in 2018. In 2019, the company had secured funds from NASA due to a major contract with the US Air Force Research Laboratory. NASA was able to secure $53 million in funding for SpaceX. By 2020, the company had averaged a launch every two weeks, culminating in 26 missions that destroyed its previous record. The year also resulted in Crew-1, the first operational astronaut mission SpaceX had flown as well as two other missions to the ISS. When the contract bid for $2.89 billion was announced in 2021, it was no surprise that after SpaceX’s recent success, they came out victorious.

Bezos Enters the Space Race

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Blue Origin was first founded in 2000, two years earlier than SpaceX. The company had less ambitious goals at first, focusing mainly on suborbital spaceflight. The company then made the leap to orbital spaceflight in 2014 when they started supplying rocket engines for the United Launch Alliance. The following year, the company announced their intent to manufacture and fly their own orbital launch vehicle they called the New Glenn. In 2019, Bezos announced that the company had furthered their goals, stating their plans for a moon lander called Blue Moon which was set to be ready by 2024. The program was initially awarded $579 million in 2020 to develop an integrated human landing system as part of NASA’s Artemis program to bring humans back to the moon. But in 2021, NASA awarded the Artemis moon lander contract in full to a rival bid from SpaceX. To date, Blue Origin has completed 15 launches of their New Shepard suborbital rocket, while SpaceX has completed a total of 123 launches of various crafts.

NASA’s Budget Concerns

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When SpaceX was given the $2.89 billion contract, it was less than half the price Blue Origin requested which was $5.99 billion. In their filed protest, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith stated that NASA hadn’t given the company the opportunity to amend its proposal, but at more than double the cost, the proposal would’ve required drastic cuts.

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Kathy Lueders, who is the NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the sole selection of SpaceX was the result of budget constraints. NASA had requested an estimated $3.3 billion from congress for its HLS program, but was rewarded only $850 million. She went on to publish a statement that further explained the budgeting reasons for the decision: “While it remains the Agency’s desire to preserve a competitive environment at this stage of the HLS Program… NASA’s current fiscal year budget did not support even a single Option A award.” She continued on, further stating, “SpaceX’s initial lander design will largely obviate the need for additional re-design and development work (and appurtenant Government funding) in order to evolve this initial capability into a more sustainable capability.”

The Future of Space Travel and Terraforming

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While this newly awarded contract provides the opportunity for SpaceX to launch a new group of astronauts to the moon, it also furthers their future plans for the company. Musk has stated on several occasions his desire to go to Mars. He has also stated that he wants to propel humanity beyond a “single planet species”. He expressed his desire to “have a permanent base on the moon”. But In addition to a moon base, Musk also stated the possibility to, “build a city on Mars to become a spacefaring civilization, a multi-planet species”.

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The newly awarded contract is a step in the right direction for Musk who is insistent on living in glass domes prior to terraforming a planet. Musk also insists on building a permanent base on the moon. As a means of getting to Mars, Musk has been pouring resources into his newly designed Starship rocket series. The estimated $5 billion rocket is one Musk has expressed confidence in for landing human on Mars by 2026.

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Sources: Forbes, WashingtonPost, MSN, Reuters, FoxBusiness, Express, TheGuardian, DailyMail, CNBC, ElonX, Space, BusinessInsider, NPR, TheVerge, TechCrunch, MarketRealist, CBSNews, Yahoo, TeslaRati, NBC, TechRadar, People

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