Internal Space Race
Not only is the US deep into another space race, competing against China for a stake in Mars and the Moon, but inside the US there is also a space race within the recently developed private sector of space exploration. This, of course, is to be expected: as multiple private companies are competing for investor money and looking into creating a market for space tourism and colonization, they’ll also be competing for milestones, such as being the first to reach the Moon, Mars, to land people on them, these kinds of things.
However, with the stakes being high and nerves to their limits, the peaceful technological competition can sometimes escalate into other kinds of conflicts. This time, fortunately, it’s not a full-scale war, but an important legal battle between the two main competitors: Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Let’s see what’s going on.
If you’ve been following the news on the space race, you probably know where all their technology came from. Unlike the first space race, the current contenders from the American side didn’t start from the ground up. Instead, they got a huge kick start by getting a lot of their technology from NASA and other aerospace companies, in the form of patents that expired, became public domain or were licensed, collaborations, as well as former and current NASA engineers.
And the reason is obvious: no need to reinvent the wheel. The US government has been investing into private space exploration and this is one of the ways that they do that, even while NASA is doing its own space exploration and research.
However, as there are multiple companies involved in the race, sometimes the US government has to choose only one among them.
This time, NASA had to pick a company to partner with in order to develop new Moon landers, to send people to the moon for the first time since 1972. SpaceX and Blue Origin were competing for this contract for months, and in the end NASA picked SpaceX. After the decision, Blue Origin contested it, and upon hearing a “no” again, they sued.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that they got into this kind of dispute. Back in 2013 they already clashed publicly over the exclusive use of a NASA launch pad, in which NASA also opted for SpaceX. Not soon after they also clashed over rights to a patent for landing rockets on the ocean, in which SpaceX was once again favored, and Blue Origin contested and lost.
SpaceX started first, so it’s no surprise that they’d end up being favored in these contracts. Still, Blue Origin has also been striving to catch up, and their newly-unveiled space tourism initiative may bring them some new life and turn the tides for them.
Right now, the organizations involved are locked in the dispute. Because the decision is being contested and the case is currently being analyzed by the Court of Federal Claims, NASA has halted all work on the project, meaning SpaceX did too, from the day the legal action started (19 August) until 1 November. Not to mention that it led to some funny Twitter discussions, in classic Musk style.
Of course, this is merely a setback. After the matter ends, research and development will continue as usual, whatever results might be. If the previous battles are any indication, it’s likely that SpaceX will come out victorious once again, but we’ll have to wait and see, as details on the case are being kept private.
Hopefully this doesn’t become a habit. While legal action is important to maintain fair ground among the companies, it should not get in the way of technological development, nor be used as a way to halt competition. With any luck the decisions coming from this will be able to calm the nerves of the parties involved.