This Thursday, Jeff Bezos will make an announcement about his space company, Blue Origin. The image on the invitation sent to members of the press, a view of the Earth as seen from the Moon, suggests the Amazon founder will unveil Blue Origin’s plans to send both robotic and human missions to the lunar surface, possibly with a NASA contract in hand.
If that’s the case, he won’t be alone. Aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin has already unveiled its lunar plans in partnership with NASA. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a plan for a lunar flyby mission, while NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein suggested to a Senate committee in March that the agency was open to using commercial heavy-lift rockets for its lunar crewed missions. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could serve such a mission.
The last few years have seen an increasing interest in going back to the Moon. The Trump Administration has announced it wants NASA to put humans back on the Moon by 2024, and the agency has also announced plans for a “Lunar Gateway” – a space station orbiting the Moon that would be developed in collaboration with multiple space agencies. That space station brings with it opportunities for commercial companies to develop lunar capabilities to provide support for missions at the Gateway.
Lockheed Martin has a long history with NASA and lunar exploration—it was one of the contractors on the Apollo missions. But billionaires Musk, who runs Tesla as well as SpaceX, and Bezos represent the burgeoning commercial space industry, and the paths the two respective men took to get to this point couldn’t be much different.
What the two companies have in common is that both are very much products of their founders’ visions. Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, just three years after Amazon’s IPO fed his fortune. Two years later, fresh off the sale of PayPal, Musk founded SpaceX with his own personal fortune.
It’s from there, however, that the paths of the companies diverged. For the next 15 years, Blue Origin barely made any noise, save for some controversy as Bezos bought up land in Texas to serve as the company’s test facility in the early 2000s, and some small announcements about milestones it had achieved in agreements made with NASA for about $25.7 million in funding for space development. Bezos remains the sole owner of Blue Origin, and Forbes estimates that the world’s wealthiest man has funneled over $1.5 billion of his personal fortune into the company, financed by sales of Amazon stock.
SpaceX, in the meantime, has been anything but quiet. The company began making noise in December 2003, when it drove its first rocket, the Falcon One, from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California to Washington, D.C. in order to unveil it at the National Mall for an invited group of Congressional staffers, NASA and FAA officials.. Musk regularly promotes the company and its plans for the future, his eyes firmly set on Musk’s personal vision that SpaceX is to be the vanguard of humans becoming a multiplanetary civilization.
Musk was also more aggressive in obtaining venture financing and government contracts in order to support his company. Though he still maintains majority ownership (Forbes estimates his stake in the company is over 50%), SpaceX has also raised over $2.5 billion to date in venture financing, grants and debt, with a current valuation of over $31.5 billion, according to Pitchbook. Recent SEC filings show it aims to raise another $500 million in capital this year.
Throughout the past decade, SpaceX has kept itself in the public eye —even as it has brought the “move fast and break things” ethos of Silicon Valley to the traditionally more conservative aerospace industry.
“SpaceX is off trying new things, rapidly innovating, breaking things,” said Chad Anderson, founder of Space Angels, a VC firm specializing in the space industry. “They test quite a bit, and we’ve seen some failures. We’ve seen explosions of rockets — they even put a highlight reel together of rockets exploding as they tried to land them. They take it as a point of pride that they’re willing to try new things and they’re really captured the imagination of the public that way.”
By contrast, Blue Origin rarely makes major announcements about future plans, unless it’s unavoidable due to public contracts or other reasons, preferring instead to focus its press efforts on what it’s accomplished. “Bezos proudly proclaims whenever he does a big announcement, he likes to talk about the things that he’s done,” said Anderson. One rare exception for this has been its plans for the Moon. Its robotic cargo delivery lander, Blue Moon, was first announced in 2017, and last summer the company revealed that it had a five year plan to get to the Moon.
While SpaceX has adopted a high-profile view of its risky, iterative innovation strategy, Blue Origin’s development is nearly the exact opposite. The company motto is Gradatim Ferociter, a Latin phrase meaning Step By Step, Ferociously. In interviews, Bezos has quoted the old military maxim that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” and every time one of its resuable rockets has a successful launch and landing, a tortoise is painted on its side, a nod to Aesop’s moral that “slow and steady wins the race.”
Despite Bezos’ faith in a more slow-paced, perfectionist approach to development, it’s undeniable that SpaceX has seen more success – at least so far. Though Blue Origin has had 11 successful launches to date, it has yet to send any spacecraft to orbit, instead keeping its launches suborbital, like the Mercury spacecraft that its current system is inspired by.
SpaceX, meanwhile, has had over 70 successful commercial orbital launches, which include not only putting satellites in orbit but also 15 successful deliveries of cargo to the International Space Station. It was the first company to make a cargo delivery to the station, and the company has also seen two successful launches of its Falcon Heavy rocket, currently the most powerful rocket in commercial production.
This track record has also come at some cost to the company. It’s had multiple launch failures, some of which have resulted in the loss of customer payloads, and more recently, a test fire of rockets on the spacecraft it’s developing to deliver astronauts to the space station led to the destruction of that craft— and has also likely pushed the schedule for sending astronauts to the station back to 2020. The company was originally set to have its first successful crewed flight in 2017.
In this billionaire race to the Moon, Bezos and Musk have set themselves up as the Tortoise and the Hare, respectively. But it likely won’t be until at least the mid-2020s that we learn which approach will win.
-Alex Knapp; Forbes Staff