Jeff Bezos prepares to challenge Elon Musk for space dominance
When most people think of a space race, they think of the one conducted by the United States against the Soviet Union during the 1960s or the current one between the United States, and her allies, versus China. However, the most interesting space race is occurring between commercial space companies: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. As of right now, SpaceX is winning, hands down.
Recently, Blue Origin conducted one of its suborbital joy rides on board the New Shepard with six passengers, most of whom paid for the brief experience of microgravity and a glorious view of the Earth. In the meantime, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon flew a group of private astronauts on behalf of Axiom Space to the International Space Station (ISS), a much more impressive flight.
However, Amazon, also owned by Bezos, has recently contracted with two other launch companies, as well as Blue Origin, to launch the bulk of a more than 3,000 satellite constellation called Kuiper. Bezos’ answer to Musk’s Starlink satellite internet constellation. The Arianespace Ariane 6, the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, and the often-delayed Blue Origin New Glenn will transport the satellites into Earth orbit.
In the meantime, NASA is offering Blue Origin two opportunities to make itself a big player in commercial space. The space agency has offered three contracts to build a commercial replacement for the International Space Station. It has also started a second round of soliciting bids for a Human Landing System to land astronauts on the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Project Artemis.
Blue Origin’s proposal for a commercial space station, which it is developing in partnership with Sierra Space and Boeing, is called Orbital Reef, is a mixed space industrial park, experimental lab and orbiting hotel. Blue Origin hopes to have the facility up and running by 2030, the year the ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned. Interestingly, SpaceX does not have a commercial space station contract.
Recently, NASA has announced that it would like to acquire a second HLS to supplement the SpaceX lunar starship. The solicitation gives Blue Origin a second chance to win a contract that it failed to get in 2021. The second HLS would be able to send astronauts and cargo to the moon after the SpaceX lunar lander does so during the flight of Artemis 3, currently scheduled for 2025.
However, Bezos’ space company has a number of problems, technical and political, standing in its way before it can become a full partner in America’s return to the moon.
NASA would like the second HLS to be an improvement over the first. The task will be difficult because SpaceX’s lunar lander is capable of bringing 100 metric tons of cargo and astronauts to the lunar surface in one go.
Blue Origin may have alienated the decision-makers at NASA for disputing the first HLS selection, even going so far as to take the space agency to court in what amounted to a campaign of lawfare. Bezos’ was ultimately unsuccessful but delayed development of the SpaceX lunar lander by several months.
Finally, according to Politico, Blue Origin is facing opposition from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is critical of a provision in a bill drafted to enhance American competitiveness with China that would authorize $10 billion for NASA’s HLS program. Sanders is characterizing the provision as a giveaway to Bezos so that he might personally fly to the moon. Blue Origin and independent groups such as the Planetary Society have been countering Sanders’ assertions, pointing out to lawmakers that the provision is generally for lunar landers — and that Blue Origin is not guaranteed to win any of the money. While Bezos has expressed a desire to colonize the moon, he hasn’t stated he expects a ride to the moon.
Blue Origin has a lot to do before it becomes a credible rival to SpaceX in commercial space. It has to get the New Glenn rocket, which would be the rough equivalent to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, flying on a regular basis. It has to deploy the Orbital Reef and make it a profitable concern. It has to win the second HLS contract and get it ready to be part of an Earth-Moon transportation infrastructure.
Whatever one thinks of Bezos, Musk or any other space billionaire, the unassailable fact remains that they are providing services to NASA far cheaper than if the space agency were creating them in the old-fashioned way. The more commercial players in space, the more competition, the more innovation, and ultimately, the lower the costs. Everybody wins.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
–Updated at 11:54 a.m.