The Space X Vs. Blue Origin Space Race
This is an article “The Space X Vs. Blue Origin Space Race” by Marc Primo
Welcome to the new age of the Space Race wherein commercial companies jockey for pole position when it comes to NASA's good graces. Currently head-to-head in the race are Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin. Both have recently made headlines for their high-octane competition in being NASA's official moon-landing missions partner, which will carry attractive tax incentives as a prize, aside from good old bragging rights.
Last month, SpaceX went ahead with a green light from NASA as its official partner for the first-manned demonstration landing on the moon's surface or Artemis missions. The development resulted in Blue Origin's dismay as it continues with its protest stating 'fundamental issues' on its awarding procedure. It also leaves the latter in a more disadvantaged position in numerous aspects.
With SpaceX securing victory for the upcoming Artemis missions, programs that intend to achieve reusability for its Starship spacecraft and its landing systems are on track towards the 2024 slated missions. Similar to how the U.S. and the Soviet Union went neck and neck for orbital supremacy, Blue Origin remains hopeful to be part of the Artemis missions' broader moon economy in the coming years. After all, a potential multi-billion dollar market is also taking shape via commercial space flights, which the Bezos-led company has already launched back in July.
The NASA factor
Initially, and like any other federal bidding procedure, NASA invited SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics to develop human landers for its upcoming Artemis missions. What resulted was the Starship rocket from Musk's team, which they also intend to use for future Mars missions; a BE-7 cryogenic engine-powered lander from Blue Origin, which they continue to develop; and an over 25-subcontractor team for Dynetics's human landing system.
Of course, Dynetics, and mainly Blue Origin, didn't take the news sitting down. Both companies soon filed protests with the Government Accountability Office with Blue Origin, stating that they offered their initial bid of $5.99 when NASA made the go-ahead to select two teams. Fast forward to April this year, NASA favored the Starship's $2.8 billion price tag over the others while also considering its performance and management rating. But then, the federal government only approved a $3.3 billion budget for the missions for the current year.
According to Blue Origin's statement, if such details were made known during the bidding process, they would have taken the necessary steps to meet the budget and revise its offer. However, the GAO made it clear that NASA has full rights to approve multiple awards, single awards, or none before its selection, therefore rejecting Blue Origin's protest. NASA further justified that upon its review, SpaceX's Starship is way cheaper and has passed a comprehensive set of metrics for its consideration to the Artemis missions.
Next steps for other players
While both Blue Origin and Dynetics protests for the NASA grant had low chances of succeeding, It's not the end of the road for the companies participating in the new space race. Bezos had already written a letter addressed to NASA administrator Bill Nelson to push for their participation in other human lander system projects, while offering over $2 billion in federal payments until 2023. This development made NASA officials reconsider awarding other contracts that may support the Artemis missions.
However, the space race is not limited to the moon missions alone. Aside from the government's human lander programs, more opportunities for commercial space flights are already underway. Blue Origin went ahead with its July 20 sub-orbital flight. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic flight followed a month later, but the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration later grounded all succeeding space flights for Virgin Galactic's off-course ascent mishap). The flights were more of a promotional campaign led by Bezos and Branson as both went aboard their respective space crafts. And for that, these flights make the moon a mere stopover rather than the finish line for today's space race, as Musk had also finally launched SpaceX's private space flight this month, taking four civilians into orbit.
Then, there's also NASA's plan of building a new International Space Station, along with giant space cities that would orbit Earth in the future much like in the film Elysium but, hopefully, without any of its dystopian intent.
SpaceX's aims the farthest (so far)
But of all the space racers we have today, Musk seems to be the most ambitious as he continues to aim for the red planet within the decade. Driving towards a self-sustaining Mars city by 2050, the SpaceX team continues its feasibility studies on terraforming the planet while developing new sciences that will make sustainability possible.
According to Musk, humans must not be content with being single-planet species, especially at the rate of climate change. Sooner or later, and other experts agree, we should be looking for another interplanetary or sub-orbital home if we don't mitigate the atmospheric changes causing havoc across the globe.
Somehow, Mars is the impetus that Musk nurtures, with the Artemis missions being the first steps towards humans could transform into a spacefaring civilization. Starship is similar to a 15-story building and can carry up to 100 people and at least 100 tonnes of payload to space, and back. Three Raptor rocket engines power it with two forward and two aft flaps that independently move to enable safe landings and allow for reuse.
Is the space race geared towards humans abandoning Earth?
With such ambitious projects, global entrepreneurs, including Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, are gearing to join the space race. Milner recently granted $100 million funding for the Breakthrough Starshot project, which aims to send unmanned probes to the Alpha Centauri star system.
While such interstellar travels for humans remain as fragments of our imagination, more businesses are slowly discovering new ways to monetize the space race. However, many of us already know that space exploration is taking center stage just as when the Earth's resources are starting to deteriorate.
It might be a bleak instance of science fiction imitating real life, but from what the current space race is telling us, the one-percenters are spending more money on space than here at home, which is a bit alarming from a broader perspective.