Billionaire Space Race: How Blue Origin’s Attempt to Stall SpaceX’s Lunar Program May Lead to China Beating the USA to the Moon

Henry Killen, MJLST Staffer

The days of mega billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson being content with their private islands and mega yachts are over. The latest mega rich trend is owning a space company. Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic are all leaders in space exploration and are all owned by billionaires. The space race is on! The privatization of space travel has led to innovative developments in the industry. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX now have reusable rockets that cut the cost of a launch by at least 50 percent compared to a nonreusable rocket. Virgin Galactic has developed its own unique technology, which uses an aircraft to fly their space vehicle to an altitude of 50,000 feet before releasing it.

In 2017, then President Trump signed an order directing NASA to partner with the private sector with the goal of putting astronauts on the moon by 2024. The project, known as Artemis, will return astronauts to the moon for the first time in over 50 years. Perhaps the most important part of going to the moon, is the lunar landing vehicle. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have demonstrated that their rockets can safely and effectively travel into space, but neither has ever successfully landed a vehicle on the moon. Developing lunar landing technology is certainly expensive, so NASA solicited proposals from private companies who want to lead the lunar landing project.  In 2020, NASA awarded almost a billion dollars combined to SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics (long considered a dark horse) to begin researching and developing a lunar landing vehicle. After the initial funding, NASA was expected to select two of the three companies, so they would have a backup if one company failed, and then fully fund the completion of each company’s lunar landing program. In April 2021, NASA selected only SpaceX to build the lunar landing system because of a lack of funding. Blue Origin immediately filed a protest with the US Government Accountability Office, but its protest was promptly denied. Then, Blue Origin sued NASA in federal court in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System. Blue Origin’s main issue is that NASA was expected all along to select two companies, and that they would have revised their proposal had they known only one would be selected. Released court filings show that SpaceX’s final proposal was $2.9 billion, while Blue Origin’s was $5.9 billion. On November 4th, a federal judge rejected Blue Origin’s argument because the company was not able to show how the process was unfair. Though the judge’s opinion is yet to be publicly released, we do know that the case was dismissed under rules 12(b)(1) lack of subject matter jurisdiction and 12(b)(6) failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. It appears Blue Origin has accepted defeat because Jeff Bezos took to twitter writing in part, “we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract.”

Perhaps the biggest loss stemming from this lawsuit is time. SpaceX and NASA’s work was put on hold during this litigation. Ultimately, they were unable to communicate about the Artemis program for nearly seven months, and have now delayed humans returning to moon until at least 2025. As America’s billionaires litigated and delayed this monumental project, America’s biggest rival on the global stage has made its own strides for putting humans back on the moon. China is now rapidly developing its own lunar program. China publicized timeline for landing its astronauts on the moon is slated for 2028, but China has a history of world-class innovation. Most recently, China has successfully tested the most advanced missiles in history. In 2020, China used a drone to raise a flag on the moon, becoming the only nation besides America to have a flag standing on the moon. General Mark Milley, who is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said China’s new weapons are close to a ‘sputnik moment.’ The sputnik moment Milley is referring to is when the Soviet’s put the first satellite in orbit during the Cold War, shocking the USA and giving the Soviet’s an early lead in the space race. America ended up beating Russia to the moon after the sputnik moment, but the 21st century’s moon race is still up for grabs. It remains to be seen if America’s billionaire-run space companies can compete with a country like China. One thing is certain, SpaceX and Blue Origin’s resources are better off innovating than litigating.