In recent months, several of the world’s top billionaires have made headlines in relation to the quest for space. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX was awarded a NASA contract for the Human Landing System program. Sir Richard Branson traveled along with a small crew to the outer edges of space in Virgin Galactic’s Unity22. (Read more about Branson crossing the finish line of the billionaire space race in this Bold story.) Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, followed Branson’s accomplishment just a week later. Based on this, it’s clear that a billionaire space race exists. And the next stage in this race involves a competition for providing lunar services.
As part of the Artemis Project, NASA has big plans to reestablish lunar services in the coming years. But unlike NASA programs in the past, they are increasingly relying on commercial services to achieve their goals. One of these services involves developing a lunar lander as part of the Human Landing System program. And those in the billionaire space race are jockeying for position to be selected for the advancing these lunar services. Of course, that’s where things are getting a bit complicated. This not only pertains to those in the billionaire space race but also for NASA as well.
“Instead of investing in two competing lunar landers as originally intended, the Agency chose to confer a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar head start to SpaceX. The decision broke the mold of NASA’s successful commercial space programs by putting an end to meaningful competition for years to come.” – Jeff Bezos, Founder of Blue Origin
Recent Developments in the Billionaire Space Race
The Human Landing System, as part of NASA’s Artemis Project, hopes to resume lunar services as early as 2024. But in order to achieve this, it must develop not only space travel to and from the moon. It similarly will need a lunar lander to facilitate transportation to and from the moon. Rather than awarding contracts for such a design that NASA would own, NASA is taking a different approach. It is instead awarding contracts to companies that would create and own the lunar services. It would then lease these services from these companies to fulfill its missions.
Understandably, such contracts could be highly lucrative, earning companies billions of dollars. This is one of the factors that has incentivized the billionaire space race. Three major companies were interested in attaining these NASA contracts, which included Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics. In April of 2021, NASA announced that the contract would be awarded to SpaceX solely, which didn’t go over well with the other applicants. As a result, both Blue Origin and Dynetics have filed complaints with the General Accountability Office in hopes of changing NASA’s decision.
“[The House Appropriations Committee] urges NASA to bolster competition in lander development and production and improve the United States’ prospects for landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024.” – July 15th House Appropriations Committee Report
Competition for Lunar Services Heating Up
The reason that both Dynetics and Blue Origin lodge a complaint against NASA involves its selection of a single contractor. In previous comments, NASA stated it planned on selecting 2 lunar services contractors in an effort to promote competition. This would invite greater innovation while also potentially lowering costs. Thus, when NASA selected SpaceX, it contradicted prior commitments. In all fairness, SpaceX’s bid of $2.89 billion was far less than the others. Blue Origin’s bid price was almost $6 billion. But for those in the billionaire space race, this did not justify a solo-selection on just one company.
NASA’s dilemma at present is primarily a financial one. It had originally requested a budget of $3.4 billion from Congress for 2021. However, it only received approval for $850 million. This naturally limited the number of contracts it might award for lunar services. Because SpaceX provided a means to allow NASA to work within their budget, they were selected. But now, Bezos has developed a counteroffer that might also help NASA’s tight money position. He has promised to reduce his landing services bid by $2 billion and self-fund a pathfinder mission as well. This makes Blue Origin’s offer much more attractive, showing how competition in the billionaire space race can be beneficial.
“The big thing here is that we’re starting to work more closely with the commercial community. [The Commercial Lunar Payload Services program] is our first step on that front.” – Jake Bleacher, Chief Exploration Scientist at NASA
A New Approach to Lunar Services and Space Travel
At the present time, NASA is facing challenges from several directions. Notably, it must defend its decisions to choose SpaceX alone in front of the General Accountability Office. The GAO’s decision in this matter is expected in early August. NASA also faces financial constraints, and is involved in negotiations with Congress over future budgets. In recent months, both the Senate and the House Appropriations Committee voted to advance funding for space and other lunar services. But Congress also strongly encouraged NASA to award contracts to more than one company in order to invite competition. As the pressure related to the billionaire space race heats up, NASA will need to resolve these issues.
Faced with these pressures, NASA has already embraced different strategies related to lunar services. In other lunar services contracts, NASA is allowing commercial entities the right to develop and own their products. NASA then simply pays for the use of these products and other services as they need them. For example, under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, fourteen companies have received NASA contracts. NASA could certainly do the same with SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics if it chose. Given its limited budget, this seems like a rational approach. And for those in the billionaire space race, they would likely welcome such a situation.
Advancing Private-Public Partnerships
NASA’s decision to increase its reliance on commercial enterprises has fueled the billionaire space race significantly. Given the development of lunar services is pricey, it’s understandable that billion-dollar companies and individuals will compete in this area. This approach reduces expenses for NASA, especially if it embraces a lunar-travel-as-a-service mentality. And it also encourages greater innovations by private industry less constrained by government bureaucracies. It’s clear that NASA wants to return to the moon as soon as possible. And it seems several billionaires are happy to help.
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