Investing in Space: Who wins in the Elon Musk versus Jeff Bezos moon race

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A variation of SpaceX’s Starship rocket for NASA’s HLS program, left, and Blue Origin NASA SLD lander rendering.

NASA; Blue Origin

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The billionaire race to the moon is on, but it doesn’t matter whether Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos gets there first – either way, NASA wins.

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Last week the U.S. space agency announced Bezos’ Blue Origin had won a $3.4 billion contract to build an astronaut lunar lander. The company pledged to invest more than that amount of its own funding. Blue’s award was widely viewed as a boon for the space industry, but the lunar-scale battle of egos has a variety of advantages for government-backed efforts.

On the criteria of becoming the first to put astronauts on the moon, the “race” metaphor doesn’t apply here: NASA awarded Musk’s SpaceX a contract to use Starship for its Artemis three and four missions. Blue’s lander is scheduled for its first crew mission on Artemis five. And NASA has already paid out nearly $2 billion to SpaceX under its contract, granting the company effectively an 18-month head start.

But this race is a marathon, and it’s now underway.

Both companies will first aim to land uncrewed demonstrations on the moon in the next couple of years. Flying early missions successfully will build NASA’s trust and confidence in the companies’ respective vehicles – and help them toward the race’s ultimate prize (i.e. follow-on contracts).

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin heavily self-capitalize, meaning NASA can partner on the projects without significant increases to its annual budget. (NASA acknowledged in public documents that both companies underbid their competitors to secure the contracts.) 

The private funding also means NASA is insulated from excessive costs. The lander contracts are filled with milestones the companies must hit in order to see paydays, and the fixed-price nature of both awards means that any cost or delay overruns are absorbed by the private ventures, rather than taxpayers – a contrast to the billions in over-spending of NASA’s existing SLS rocket and Orion capsule programs for Artemis.

The projects will also grant invaluable experience to the companies’ talent. The pair each count national workforces in the 10,000-employee range, and the scale of the lunar Artemis lander projects has the companies hiring even more. Just as talent who worked on rockets that reached orbit are highly sought after in the industry, the folks who work on these vehicles will be valuable to companies and organizations for years to come.

I’ve spoken to dozens of space executives in the past year whose companies are not directly involved in the Artemis program, but are already reaping the benefits of the excitement and interest of establishing a “cislunar economy.” The ripple effects of the Artemis program, powered by the dual engine (so to speak) of Musk and Bezos, will push the technological boundaries in space and, in turn, benefit life on Earth – as has happened countless times before in the industry’s history.

As NASA chief Bill Nelson told my colleague Morgan Brennan yesterday, “We are a capitalist economy” and “people take risk; often where there is risk there is high reward.”

What’s up

  • Virgin Orbit shuts down after bankruptcy sales. Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch and Vast’s Launcher each bought pieces of the former rocket company’s facilities and assets for a combined $36 million. – CNBC
  • SpaceX’s 10th human spaceflight reaches the ISS for Axiom, with the Ax-2 mission carrying four people for an eight-day stay at the space station. The flight marks Peggy Whitson’s return to space, and the first orbital trip of businessman John Shoffner as well as two Saudi astronauts. – CNBC
  • SpaceX aims to join FAA in fighting environmental lawsuit that could delay Starship work: In an intervening motion, SpaceX requested the federal court allow the company to join the FAA as a defendant against the lawsuit. The company said the FAA does not adequately represent SpaceX’s interests, and outlined the stakes at hand given the lawsuit could heavily delay development of its monster rocket. – CNBC
  • Astranis’ first commercial satellite working, with service to Alaska expected to begin in June: The alternative satellite broadband company gave a post-launch update on Arcturus, with CEO John Gedmark saying “we have a new way of connecting people in some of the most remote and underserved parts of the world.” – CNBC
  • SpaceX launches additional OneWeb and Iridium satellites, with its Falcon 9 rocket flying the company’s 34th launch of the year. The company has kept up a blistering pace of a launch every four days on average in 2023. – SpaceflightNow
  • Starlink connects Mexican villages through new program: SpaceX’s satellite internet business announced its inclusion in the “Internet para Todos” program, saying the company is helping bring service to about 3,300 communities, representing about 1 million people in the country. – SpaceX
  • AT&T petitions the FCC to block the SpaceX and T-Mobile direct-to-cell plan, in a filing that argues that the companies’ strategy to use Starlink is “woefully insufficient” in avoiding interference with systems on the ground. – Ars Technica
  • NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spots ispace lander impact site on the moon’s surface: The LRO team said it will continue to image and examine the crash landing location in the coming months. – LROC
  • Federal agencies studying safety of recently popular rocket propellants: The FAA’s space advisory group said the regulator is working with NASA and the Space Force to study the safety and explosive nature of rockets that use liquid oxygen and methane as propellants, with five major rockets in development that feature the new mixture. – SpaceNews
  • Umbra and Ursa collaborating on satellite radar imagery:  The companies are partnering to have Umbra analyze data from imagery collected by Umbra’s constellation of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, in an effort to further intelligence gathering. – SpaceNews
  • The Spaceport Company demonstrates offshore launches, using a platform in the Gulf of Mexico to launch a quartet of sounding rockets, in a proof-of-concept test. – SpaceNews

Industry maneuvers

  • European Commission approves Viasat acquisition of Inmarsat, paving the way for the deal to close. The company said it expects to complete the translation by the end of the month. – Viasat
  • The European Investment Fund puts about $64 million behind Alpine Space Ventures, a Germany-based venture fund that focuses on the sector. – Alpine
  • Terran Orbital aims to raise $37 million in direct offering, with the spacecraft builder saying the round of common stock is expected to close by May 30. – Terran Orbital
  • Australian startup Fleet Space raises $33 million at a $232 million valuation: The company, which aims to use satellites to detect mineral deposits on Earth, raised the funds from Blackbird, Grok Ventures, Alumni Ventures, Hostplus, TelstraSuper, Bonding Partners and Pavilion Capital. – Fleet
  • Zeno Power Systems wins $30 million Air Force award for a nuclear-powered satellite, with the contract for delivery by 2025. – SpaceNews
  • Ursa Major revealed new “Draper” rocket engine and an Air Force contract, as the propulsion company unveiled a new hypersonics-focused product. The new engine comes under a Air Force Research Laboratory contract, and the company plans to test fire the engine within a year. – Ursa
  • In-Q-Tel has made multiple investments in Stoke Space, with the strategic investor of the U.S. intelligence community interested in the capabilities of the company, which is developing a fully reusable rocket. – TechCrunch
  • U.K. startup Satellite Vu raised $15.8 million in venture funding, from investors including Molten Ventures, Lockheed Martin Seraphim, A/O Proptech, Ridgeline Ventures, Earth Sciences Foundation and Stellar Ventures. – Satellite Vu
  • Space video startup TRL11 raises over $3 million from venture and angel investors, including BoostVC, Wonder Ventures, Anorak Ventures, Geek Ventures, Space Cadets and Launcher’s Max Haot. – TRL11

Market movers

  • Virgin Galactic attempts first spaceflight in nearly two years. The Unity 25 mission marks the final verification step before beginning commercial flights. – CNBC
  • BlackSky and Spire partner on maritime monitoring service, with the companies saying they will create a combined “Maritime Custody Service” that will automatically track more than 270,000 ships around the world. – BlackSky
  • Planet partners with the United Arab Emirates to build climate risk platform: The satellite imagery company signed with the UAE’s space agency to build a regional measure of how climate risks threaten the country. – Planet

Boldly going

  • Thomas Zurbuchen named director of ETH Zurich Space, returning to his home country of Switzerland after leaving his role as NASA’s science chief last year. – ETH
  • Andrew Rush joins Massachusetts-based Copernicus Space Corporation as President and CEO. Rush joins Copernicus, which is building small space probes, after leaving his role as COO of Redwire in November. – Copernicus
  • Melissa Quinn, leader of Spaceport Cornwall in the U.K., is stepping down: Quinn is leaving her role at the end of the month for another job. The Independent

On the horizon

  • May 25: United Launch Alliance test firing Vulcan rocket’s Blue Origin engines in a preparation for launch from Florida.
  • May 25: Rocket Lab’s Electron launching NASA’s TROPICS mission from New Zealand.
  • May 25: NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory panel public session.
  • May 26: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launching Arabsat’s BADR-8 mission from Florida.
  • May 30: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches Starlink mission from Florida.
  • May 31: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches Starlink mission from California.