USA's new space race slows down as Bezos sues to keep Musk from soaring

Topics Elon Musk | Jeff Bezos | SpaceX

Photo: Bloomberg
Space races are supposed to be won in engineering labs or up in orbit. Thanks to Jeff Bezos, the next one might be won in a courtroom or regulator’s office.

As Bezos’s companies fall behind Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the race to return humans to the moon and launch satellite-based broadband services, they’re increasingly resorting to politics and legal filings to get ahead. It’s not exactly a novel approach in Washington. But if Bezos prevails, it could do significant damage to America’s commercial space industry, just as it’s starting to get off the ground.

It may be hard to believe these days, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was once known for its speed and efficiency. In July 1962, NASA invited 11 companies to bid on the Lunar Exploration Module — or LEM — that would ferry astronauts to the moon’s surface for the first time. Shortly thereafter, it chose Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. (later Northrop Grumman Corp.) for the contract. Just seven years later, the module was on the lunar surface.

Since then, unfortunately, NASA's pace has slowed while costs have soared. In 2007, to cite only one example, the agency authorized a program to develop a new spacesuit for America's next round of lunar exploration. Fourteen years later, there’s still no new suit. A recent audit predicted there won’t be one for at least another four years. And the cost? About $500 million per suit. A major reason for this glacial pace is that the project was distributed among 27 separate contractors. 

Back in 2019, Bezos himself offered a pretty good summary of the problem: “To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as big jobs programs, in that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right senators live, and so on, that is going to change the objective.”

During the same talk, Bezos predicted that if the LEM competition were held today, lawyers would line up next to the engineers. “Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology.”

He was right! Last year, NASA selected three companies — Bezos’s Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Dynetics Inc. — to compete for a lander contract for its next mission to the moon, scheduled to land in 2024. The agency was expected to select two candidates. In April, however, it announced it was only selecting one: SpaceX. Rather than concede defeat, Blue Origin filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. When that failed, it sued NASA. As the legal process dragged on, NASA had to halt work on the lunar lander and put its schedule at risk. (Blue Origin didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Yet Bezos wasn’t done. On Aug. 25, Amazon.com Inc. (of which he is the founder and chairman) asked the Federal Communications Commission to dismiss SpaceX’s updated plan for a constellation of internet-beaming satellites. SpaceX already has more than 1,700 in orbit, with plans for as many as 30,000 more. Not coincidentally, Amazon has its own plans for internet-broadcasting satellites. With little prospect of catching up in the short-term — none of its orbiters even has a launch date yet — Amazon sent a personal attack on Musk to the FCC last week, claiming that, at his companies, “rules are for other people.” (Amazon declined to comment on the record.)

It remains to be seen how receptive the regulators and courts will be to these pleas. But even if Bezos wins, NASA shouldn’t look kindly on a come-from-behind strategy that’s designed — at least in part — to slow innovation and exploration via lawyerly means. By almost any measure, SpaceX is far ahead in this race, launching rockets every few weeks and landing contracts to send landers to the moon. 

Big companies with deep pockets will always be tempted to sue rather than compete. But Bezos, as one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in American history, should understand that humanity’s progress into space is best promoted by trusting engineers and scientists — not litigators. The new space race is just beginning. It’d be a pity to see it tethered to the launch pad by red tape.

 


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