Jeff Bezos has just been dealt a blow in his effort to challenge a big victory for SpaceX.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday denied a protest that Bezos’ Blue Origin had filed that contested NASA’s decision to award a lunar lander contract to SpaceX alone.
“GAO first concluded that NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award,” the office said in a statement.
Elon Musk’s spaceflight company SpaceX was chosen to receive the $2.9 billion contract in April, edging out defense contractor Dynetics and Blue Origin. The contract is part of NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the Moon as early as 2024 through the agency’s Artemis program. NASA’s decision came as a shock since the agency had been expected to choose two of the three companies, not just one.
Shortly after, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed protests challenging the decision. Blue Origin said NASA was required to award contracts to multiple companies in accordance with its initial stated preference.
When announcing it had picked SpaceX, NASA said it only chose one company because of limited funding from Congress for the program.
Blue Origin says NASA never initiated talks with the company to try to negotiate the price of its human landing system, which NASA expected would cost the agency $6 billion, roughly twice as much as SpaceX’s price. Blue Origin says that NASA did, however, allow SpaceX to negotiate.
“The announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all,” GAO’s statement continued. “In reaching its award decision, NASA concluded that it only had sufficient funding for one contract award. GAO further concluded there was no requirement for NASA to engage in discussions, amend, or cancel the announcement as a result of the amount of funding available for the program.”
The office added that “the evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable, and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the announcement’s terms.”
A Blue Origin spokesperson told Insider the company will “continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution.”
“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction,” the spokesperson said. “The Human Landing System program needs to have competition now instead of later – that’s the best solution for NASA and the best solution for our country.”
On Friday, Boeing’s Starliner spaceship will attempt to redeem itself after botching its last major test flight.
The company’s eventual goal is to fly astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, the way SpaceX already does. Both companies developed their launch systems through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition that awarded funding to private companies in order to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft.
But before carrying people, the Starliner has to complete an uncrewed test flight to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s certification process. Boeing first attempted this flight in December 2019, but it turned out that one of the spaceship’s clocks was set 11 hours ahead of schedule. That prompted the spaceship to fire its engines too vigorously, too early – a move meant to come at a later stage of the mission. That caused the spaceship to burn through 25% of its fuel, forcing Boeing to skip docking with the space station in order to save the Starliner from total failure.
Now, the company is confident that it has fixed the problems with its spaceship, so it’s time for the do-over.
“Now’s the right time. This team is ready to go, this vehicle is ready to go,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human-spaceflight directorate, said in a press briefing on Thursday.
Boeing must show NASA its spaceship can reach the space station
Starliner is set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket at 2:53 p.m. ET on Friday – assuming thunderstorms don’t force a delay. The mission, called Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, will send the rocket and capsule roaring into the skies above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
If all goes according to plan, the Atlas V booster should fall away after about four minutes. That would leave the rocket’s upper stage to give Starliner one final push into Earth’s orbit before it, too, separates from the capsule. Starliner should orbit Earth alone overnight, slowly lining itself up to meet the ISS the next day.
“That’s the part of this flight that, to me, is so critical: docking with station and then also, on the back end as well, going through that whole undock sequence,” Steve Stich, who manages NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a briefing on Tuesday.
If the spaceship successfully latches onto a port on the ISS, astronauts on the station will then open its hatch and unload its cargo – science equipment and supplies. After that, the Starliner is scheduled to stay docked to the ISS to test out its systems and its endurance in space, until it returns to Earth on August 5.
Boeing’s investigation into the failed flight revealed further problems
As Starliner prepares to fall back to Earth, it’s supposed to shed its service module – a cylinder containing the spaceship’s main engines. That part is supposed to fall away from the crew module, which holds the astronauts.
But this second software error could have caused the service module to bounce back and crash into the crew module. That could have sent the astronauts’ capsule tumbling or significantly damaged its protective heat shield, making it unsafe to plow through the atmosphere.
The discovery of this issue prompted a NASA investigation into Boeing’s coding and overall safety culture. NASA administrators at the time said the software issue was likely a symptom of larger problems at the company. But now, Stich said, “Boeing has an excellent safety culture.”
As a result of NASA’s investigations, Boeing fixed both issues and changed some of the spaceship’s communications software.
“There’s always a little bit of that trepidation in you,” Stich said. “This is spaceflight. The Atlas is a great vehicle. Starliner is a great vehicle. But we know how hard it is, and it’s a test flight as well. And I fully expect we’ll learn something on this test flight.”
Why NASA needs Boeing
Assuming Starliner can make it to the ISS and back without major issues, its next step will be to do it again with astronauts onboard – a crewed test flight. If everything goes smoothly, that flight could launch by the end of this year, Stich said.
NASA is relying on both Boeing and SpaceX to replace the government-developed Space Shuttle, which stopped flying in 2011.
After the Space Shuttles were retired, NASA relied solely on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS. Then SpaceX’s Crew Dragon passed the agency’s tests, flying its first astronauts to the ISS last year. SpaceX has flown two full crews since then. NASA hopes to add Starliner to its fleet soon so that the agency is no longer reliant on just one launch system.
Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have drawn public attention to space tourism after they traveled to the edge of space this month, but it’s unlikely the average person will get to visit space in the foreseeable future.
It is likely that space tourism will be a hobby solely reserved for billionaires and centi-millionaires for many years to come.
While Bezos’ Blue Origin has yet to release its ticket prices, the Amazon founder has indicated that the tickets will be competitive with Branson’s company. The first available ticket on Bezos’ flight sold for $28 million at auction and the entire 10 minute trip on Tuesday cost the billionaire about $5.5 billion out-of-pocket. The same day, the company said it had sold about $100 million worth of tickets for future passengers to ride on the 4-person aircraft.
Bezos said he plans to launch future flights at a “very high” rate going forward. “We need to get as good at running space tours as we are as a civilization at running commercial airliners,” he said.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that he believes the cost of going to space, in particular visiting Mars (a trip that would cost about $10 billion per person using current technology), will one day be equivalent to the cost of buying a house.
But, the truth is current technology is too expensive for the average person to be able to afford a seat on one of Bezos, Branson or Musk’s rockets. Though Bezos and Musk have been progressively working to make space travel more affordable through the development of reusable rockets, the industry is still in its beginning stages.
Space law experts told Insider that even outside of the sheer cost of space tourism there are several hurdles the companies must overcome before space tourism can become a viable industry for everyday people. These include creating standard regulations akin to the policies that guard airplanes, as well as developing strategies to better manage air travel and pollution from the flights.
People who ride with Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic “are not astronauts or passengers, legally speaking,” the director of McGill’s Institute of Air and Space Law, Ram Jakhu told Insider. “They are called spaceflight participants, which means they are essentially people participating in an experiment with a massive risk.”
As it stands, individuals that currently purchase space tourism tickets must sign an informed consent document releasing companies from liability if the ticket-holders are injured or killed.
Spokespeople from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did not respond to a request for comment, but Jakhu and Frans Von der Dunk, a professor of Space Law at University of Nebraska-Lincoln told Insider the risk would likely deter the general public, even if the hefty price tag had not already narrowed the field of participants.
What’s more the flights themselves would also have to be more persuasive for tourists.
“Right now, these flights are just a sophisticated form of bungee jumping,” Von der Dunk said.
NASA has chosen SpaceX to launch its next alien-hunting mission to a Jupiter moon.
The mission, called Europa Clipper, is designed to fly past Jupiter’s moon Europa 45 times, getting as close as 16 miles above its surface. Scientists believe the moon conceals a global ocean beneath its icy crust, and alien life could thrive deep within it.
NASA announced Friday that it set a date for the mission and awarded the $178 million launch contract to SpaceX. Now Europa Clipper is scheduled to blast off aboard the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2024.
Europa Clipper’s main objective is to determine whether Europa could host life at all. It aims to take high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, chart the composition and thickness of its icy crust, look for lakes below the surface, and measure the depth and saltiness of the ocean below.
The spacecraft could even fly through plumes of water vapor that shoot through Europa’s ice, since those are known to crest more than 100 miles above the surface. This water seems to come from the ocean below, and it could contain signs of life.
The reason Europa can keep water in a liquid state is that it follows an oval-shaped orbit around Jupiter. The giant planet’s gravity stretches and relaxes the moon, and that friction warms Europa’s deep underground salt water, keeping it liquid. The warmth from that process could also allow the moon to harbor deep-sea ecosystems.
SpaceX is becoming a NASA favorite
SpaceX, the rocket company Elon Musk founded in 2002, is not in the business of studying other planets. But it is in the business of launching things for NASA, and the agency is awarding the company more and more opportunities to do so.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship flew NASA astronauts to the International Space Station last year. It was the first time the US has launched its own astronauts since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. SpaceX is now regularly ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.
In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to turn its in-development Starship megarocket into a lunar lander. The agency said Starship is set to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 (though that timeline may be unrealistic). That would be the first human moon landing since the Apollo missions ended in 1972.
The decision prompted challenges from competing rocket makers Blue Origin and Dynetics since the original plan was for NASA to pick two of the three companies for lunar-lander contracts. The protests required NASA to order that SpaceX stop work on the lunar lander.
SpaceX didn’t win its new Europa Clipper contract without contest, either. According to Eric Berger, a senior space editor for Ars Technica, Congress has spent years urging NASA to launch the mission aboard its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. But legislators finally relented due to delays in the launch system’s development, its high cost, and a recent technical issue that would require $1 billion to correct, Berger reported.
According to Berger, NASA could save nearly $2 billion by launching the mission aboard Falcon Heavy instead of SLS.
Elon Musk on Wednesday detailed his thoughts on cryptocurrencies, saying on a live panel that he is a supporter of bitcoin and would like to see the asset succeed.
“If the price of bitcoin goes down, I lose money. I might pump but I don’t dump,” Musk said during “The B Word” event, which also featured Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and Ark Invest CEO Cathie Wood.
He continued: “I definitely do not believe in getting the price high and selling or anything like that. I’d like to see bitcoin succeed.”
The Tesla boss also admitted that he holds “far more” bitcoin than dogecoin or ether.
“The doge community I think is somewhat irreverent obviously … and it doesn’t take itself too seriously,” he said. “The most ironic and entertaining outcome would be that the cryptocurrency that was started as a joke to make fun of cryptocurrencies ends up being the leading cryptocurrency.”
Apart from cryptocurrencies, he said he only owns stock of Tesla and SpaceX, and confirmed that both companies hold bitcoin in their balance sheets.
Since then, his influence over the cryptocurrency community has waned somewhat.
But Musk insisted his reticence on bitcoin’s energy usage is not financially motivated.
While he doubled down on the negative impacts of bitcoin mining on the environment, he did say during the panel that Tesla is open to accepting bitcoin as payment again.
“I do think long-term renewable energy will actually be the cheapest form of energy. It just doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “But as long as there is a conscious and determined and real effort by the mining community to move towards renewables, then obviously Tesla can support that.”
Cryptocurrencies, led by bitcoin, have struggled recently to rebound from a massive crash in May when the value of the total market dropped by nearly half in just seven days.
Musk “was unimpressed and lectured Neumann about how getting there was, in fact, the hard part,” the book says, citing Neumann’s recollection of the meeting to staff.
In another meeting with a high-profile CEO, Neumann again demonstrated implausible thinking. He proposed to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky that their companies work together to build 10,000 apartments to rent on Airbnb, the book says. When Chesky replied that the number was small compared to Airbnb’s millions of rentals and thus not worth pursuing, Neumann offered a much higher number: They should build 10 million apartment units, he said. At the $100,000 cost they’d discussed to build each unit, this meant the project would require $1 trillion.
Before a meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Neumann “asked aides if he should get his hair done, noting that Cook was gay,” the book says.
Neumann’s larger-than-life thinking also often led him to ask investors for incredible sums.
He wanted to raise $100 billion by the end of 2018 for a nascent investment fund, called ARK, which Neumann hoped would become the world’s largest property owner. It took Blackstone, the world’s biggest real estate fund manager, more than 30 years to reach $100 billion in real estate assets, the book says.
In 2018, Neumann told executives WeWork’s future was three-pronged: The company would have its core office space business, the investment fund ARK, and real estate services, such as cleaners or building security, according to the book. He said each would be a $1 trillion business.
The effort was part of Neumann’s quest to control the entire real estate market, the book says. He wanted to at once build, own, and lease buildings, as well as rent apartments, rather than shell out money for others to do so. To achieve this, he asked SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son for an astonishing $70 billion, the book says. The size of SoftBank’s entire Vision Fund — its investment arm that had already poured billions into WeWork — was $100 billion.
Neumann told Son that WeWork was on track to have 14 million members in 2023, up from 420,000 in 2018, the book says. Son was just as confident: He believed WeWork would have 100 million members by 2028. As of May 2021, WeWork had just under a half a million members, according to its website.
Son also wrote that WeWork would be worth a whopping $10 trillion by 2028, the book says; the figure was one-third of the value of the US stock market in 2018. Earlier this year, WeWork announced it would go public via an SPAC deal that values it far lower, at $9 billion.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX may be the buzziest name in private space exploration, but the Tesla CEO isn’t the only superrich entrepreneur with grand visions for humanity’s future beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
The Amazon founder and fellow centi-billionaire, Jeff Bezos, has his own space firm – Blue Origin. He flew on the company’s human flight to the edge of space on Tuesday, launching 62 miles above the Earth’s surface aboard its New Shepard rocket.
Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group dabbles in everything from airlines to healthcare, launched a commercial-spaceflight company of his own called Virgin Galactic. Earlier this month, he launched 53.5 skyward on one of the company’s rocket-powered planes, fulfilling a decades-long dream of traveling to space.
These three companies were all founded within a few years of one another in the early 2000s, but each has its own business model and plans for a space-faring future.
Here’s what Musk, Bezos, and Branson are each trying to accomplish, and where their efforts stand today.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, years before becoming Tesla’s outspoken CEO and cementing himself as a regular fixture in the Twittersphere.
The company grew out of an idea Musk had to send a spacecraft called the “Mars Oasis” to the red planet. The vehicle would deliver an experimental greenhouse and equipment for taking photos of the planet and sending them back to Earth. Musk hoped the project would spark a renewed interest in getting to Mars within the US government.
That’s what the Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has spent the better part of the past two decades trying to achieve, and it’s made some great strides.
It has completed numerous launches for commercial and government customers, and in 2012 it became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. In 2020 it became the first to send humans to space and to the ISS. And in April NASA picked the company to land the first astronauts on the Moon since 1972.
SpaceX is also working on a broadband-internet service consisting of thousands of satellites, called Starlink. The service hopes to deliver high-speed internet to remote and rural areas, and SpaceX recently said it had more than 500,000 orders and deposits.
Ultimately, Musk thinks humanity’s future hinges on its ability to settle Mars. He said in 2020 that he wanted to establish a city of 1 million people on Mars by 2050. Settlers would get there using a fleet of 1,000 SpaceX Starships – the towering, 387-foot-tall rocket ship the company is designing for deep-space travel.
Like Musk, the Amazon billionaire Bezos’ fascination with space travel stretches back decades. He’s been particularly taken with the physicist Gerard O’Neill’s visions of floating space stations that could house trillions of humans once Earth runs out of resources.
To indulge his obsession, Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 with a similar goal as Musk’s venture: Make space exploration cheaper through boosters that can be recycled for future launches. The Kent, Washington-based company operated in total secrecy until about 2003, and Bezos stayed tight-lipped about its plans for more than a decade after that.
For years now, the company has been testing a suborbital rocket called New Shepard, built to take paying tourists to the edge of space in a pressurized capsule. The idea is that on a Blue Origin flight, space tourists will be able to catch a glimpse of Earth through large windows and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Jeff Bezos wrote in an Instagram post. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”
The company is also developing a larger rocket called New Glenn for delivering payloads to low orbit, along with a secretive future project called New Armstrong. If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re right – Blue Origin’s launch vehicles are all named for former NASA astronauts.
In 2019, Bezos revealed plans for a lunar lander called Blue Moon, which the company said would be ready in 2024 and would eventually help establish a “sustained human presence” on the moon. Blue Origin bid for a contract to land NASA astronauts on the moon and was beat out by SpaceX – but the company is disputing the decision.
When Bezos announced plans to step down as Amazon’s CEO in 2021, he said he planned to dedicate more time to his other ventures, including Blue Origin. And in a 2018 interview with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, Bezos called the rocket company his “most important work.”
Branson’s space venture differs from Blue Origin and SpaceX in a couple of key ways. Virgin Galactic is focused on suborbital tourism, rather than launching people and payloads into space. It also has a radically different method of sending spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic doesn’t launch rockets straight up from the ground like its rivals. Instead, its spacecraft are meant to be flown to 50,000 feet by a broad, dual-fuselage jet called WhiteKnightTwo. From there, the ship detaches and glides for a few seconds before firing up its rocket motor and beginning a near-vertical ascent to about 300,000 feet.
The company completed its first fully-crewed flight to the edge of space earlier this month, launching its founder and others more than 50 miles skyward. Virgin Galactic planned to accept passengers in 2021, it’s pushed those plans to next year. It has sold 600 tickets for $200,000 to $250,000 apiece.
When the spacecraft reaches its final altitude, customers will be able to get out of their seats and spend several minutes floating around the luxurious cabin and gazing back at Earth or out into space. Virgin also plans to offer flights for research purposes. Once the spacecraft is pulled back into Earth’s atmosphere, it will be piloted back to Virgin’s New Mexico facility for a runway landing.
Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft are reusable, aside from their fuel, and the company hopes to make launching things and people into space more economical and environmentally sound.
In March, Virgin Galactic unveiled the VSS Imagine, the first of its next-generation SpaceShip III vehicles. Before that, it had built and flown two SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, including the VSS Enterprise, which was obliterated in a fatal crash in 2014.
In the future, Virgin Galactic plans to operate a fleet of vehicles that could fly tourists to space hotels, transport researchers to floating labs, or provide lightning-fast transcontinental flights. In 2017, it spun off a company called Virgin Orbit, which is working to send satellites into orbit using a similar air-launch system.
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will blast off soon, ushering in a new era of private space travel, and raising questions about who gets to call themselves an astronaut.
Will paying customers be considered astronauts? Or will that term be reserved for pilots and scientists?
“We’re in the early stages, so it seems like it hasn’t really hit where those debates about who’s [an astronaut] have happened,” said Phantom Space CEO Jim Cantrell, who was SpaceX’s first VP of business development.
He added: “I think that sort of thing will develop over time.”
There’s also an ongoing debate over where space actually begins. A common demarcation is the Kármán Line, an imaginary boundary sitting 62 miles or 100 km above sea level.
“Essentially, once this 100 km line is crossed, the atmosphere becomes too thin to provide enough lift for normal aircraft to maintain flight,” Raman Prinja, head of University College London’s Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, said via email.
But some academics, governments, and executives offer varying altitudes when asked to define where Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. A few space-travel companies have boasted that they’re going to the “edge” of space, even though they’re flying well below the Kármán Line.
NASA, meanwhile, says space begins at just 50 miles up, meaning anyone who crosses above that is an astronaut in the eyes of the US government.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity shuttle in May hit an altitude of 55.45 miles. By NASA’s standards, tourists who eventually soar that high would be considered astronauts. But others may disagree.
Blue Origin said the 60-foot rocket that will carry Bezos and his fellow travellers will cross the Kármán Line, which the company called the “internationally recognized line of space.”
“Having crossed over the Kármán Line into space, you will have earned your astronaut wings,” Blue Origin’s website said.
So, by Blue Origin’s standard, Bezos will be an astronaut. This is also true for the anonymous bidder who will pay $28 million to be aboard.
But Prinja and other experts said that imaginary boundary wasn’t precise – and may change in the future.
“I am reasonably certain there is no single compelling definition for ‘the edge of space,'” Edwin L. Turner, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, said via email.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale considered moving the line, perhaps dropping it as low as 80 kilometers (in this scenario, Bezos would still be an astronaut.) And Turner said the line could eventually be defined as high as 150 km, or about 93 miles (in this scenario, Bezos would not be an astronaut.)
Turner included a more technical definition of the edge of space: “However, a reasonable and popular [definition] is that it is the minimum altitude at which an object moving with sufficient velocity could complete one circular orbit of the Earth without the benefit of further propulsion before the drag force associated with the very thin atmosphere at that altitude would cause its orbit to decay and the object to plunge back to Earth.”
With that definition, getting to space could be dependent on the size or shape of an aircraft. Another wrinkle is that the changing atmosphere may effectively move the line, Turner said.
Cantrell’s Phantom Space aims to mass produce launch vehicles to carry people to space. Its goal is to make it easy for anyone to travel out of Earth’s atmosphere, meaning anyone could be an astronaut.
“What we really want to do is to make space an everyday event, rather than a celebratory, notable, once-in-a-lifetime event,” Cantrell added.
Elon Musk enjoyed a meme on Saturday poking fun at Jeff Bezos’ upcoming flight to the edge of space.
Musk commented “haha” under a meme posted on Twitter about Bezos’ flight. The meme shows Bezos talking to Musk about his flight, but with their faces superimposed onto Anakin Skywalker and Padme from “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones” – a popular meme format.
“Great to start the morning with a friend,” Branson said in a tweet two hours before the flight.
A Virgin Galactic spokesperson confirmed Musk’s purchase to The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, but didn’t clarify how high Musk was on the waiting list.
A ticket for a one-hour trip on Virgin Galactic’s space plane costs $250,000 – that also includes training and a spacesuit. About 600 people across 58 countries have already reserved a ticket on VVS Unity, including the celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga.