Is the Race to the Moon being turned into a legal battle between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?

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.

NASA technology

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.

The dispute

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.

Outcomes

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.

USA Space Policy

New Cold War, New Space Race

If you have been half following the news the last few years, you may have noticed the US’s growing attrition with China. What used to be a very profitable outsourcing partnership quickly developed into one of the US’s greatest fears, and Trump’s America First policy set out to try to stop it in its tracks, unsuccessfully.

What we didn’t really expect, however, was that this economic war would also develop into a space race, much like the Cold War’s. It is logical, though: China is growing into a technological power, as Huawei’s ever expanding 5G technology clearly shows, and the country is also aiming for the stars.

Paradigm shift

Of course, although this space race is similar to the last one, in that it is a technological race, it also has many very prominent differences.

The main one is that the government agencies aren’t the main players here. NASA is not at the forefront of technological development anymore but has been delegated to mostly astronomical research. That is, developing and launching probes and satellites and sending manned research missions into the ISS.

The main players in the US are now private companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which receive a lot of private and public investment and have been very successful.

In China, however, the government is still on the forefront, mainly with the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), in partnership with many universities.

Although compared to the US, the Chinese space program is still in its infancy, the US has greater ambitions.

Command and conquer

During his term, Trump slowly increased his focus on space. While he initially just followed Obama’s last policies, at the end of his term he had created the United States Space Force increased focus on space research, and set the goals of creating a base of operations on the Moon, with a “permanent human presence”, and doing a manned mission to Mars.

While current international laws prohibit nations from considering celestial bodies or parts of them as their territory, this is something that may change by force, should the US actually develop a military presence in space. At least for now, it aims to do missions with commercial ends, such as extraction of raw materials, especially on the moon. But, of course, as the technology develops and the attrition goes on, priorities may change.

Cooperation

Another interesting aspect of the current space policy, and which gives even more “cold war” vibes, is that the US is aiming to create partnerships with similar-minded nations in order to strengthen their space program. The National Space Policy document explicitly states that such partnerships will be done with “like-minded international and private partners”. The world is slowly dividing into a “US-bloc” and a “China-bloc”, and space is the most likely battlefield for now.

This seems to be one of the ways the US has found to try to curb a bit China’s economic expansion, such as the partnerships with African countries, the Belt and Road Initiative (which has partners in all continents other than North America) and Huawei’s 5G expansion. These partnerships can be a way into getting access to advanced aerospace technology, and many nations may be interested in it, especially developed nations.

A new era for the US and the world

More than a new space race, for the US this new space policy is basically a reinterpretation of the old Manifest Destiny: America is putting its own territorial and economic interests ahead of everything else, and that means being the first to go into the final frontier and reap all of the benefits which that brings.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, we will be reaping all the benefits of that technological leap in the next few decades, just like before. The first space race gave us the internet, the GPS, and many other technological marvels that we use every day. Now, in the era of Industry 4.0, who knows what will happen.