Jeff Bezos Needs NASA to Listen to Him

NASA picked SpaceX to build its lunar lander, but the Amazon billionaire really, really wants the job too.

A photograph of Jeff Bezos that has been edited to portray the billionaire's head as the surface of the moon
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In the summer of 2019, Jeff Bezos appeared at a space symposium marking the anniversary of the first moon landing. Fifty years had passed since that historic achievement, and Bezos marveled at how quickly NASA had once moved to select the manufacturer for its lunar lander. “Today there would be three protests,” he said, referring to contractors’ appeals of NASA decisions, “and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win.”

Bezos’s remarks were prescient. NASA’s pick for the maker of its next lunar lander, for its first missions to the moon since the Apollo days, has already been contested. But when Bezos predicted this future two years ago, he probably didn’t imagine that the loser in this scenario would be him.

That’s right—Jeff Bezos is suing NASA. His space company, Blue Origin, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that NASA’s process for choosing a supplier for its new landing system had “flaws.” According to the company, the process that this year led NASA to pick Elon Musk’s SpaceX over Blue Origin, which partnered with other aerospace contractors for the bid, was not fair. NASA, which had already started paying SpaceX for the job, now has to put the effort on hold.

This might seem like a strange turn for a man who just flew to the edge of space on his own rocket. But suborbital flights are a small piece of Bezos’s space ambitions, which he has described as his “most important work.” Bezos wants Blue Origin to have the honor of delivering American astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. A month before that symposium in 2019, Bezos unveiled a mock-up of the lander in a big ballroom in Washington, D.C., and, beaming with confidence, told the audience that the vehicle in front of them was going to the moon.

As it stands, Bezos won’t get his wish. He might have enough money to build his own rocket (underwritten, of course, by the contributions of Amazon workers and customers) and fund Blue Origin’s other space-based pursuits indefinitely. He is the richest person on the planet, with little competition there. But there are some things money can’t buy, and it turns out that the moon might be one of them.

The last time NASA hired someone to build a human landing system for the moon was in 1962. NASA solicited proposals for lander technology in July and picked a contractor by November—Grumman, an early iteration of Northrop Grumman, which still builds spacecraft for NASA today. “The turnaround was relatively quick,” Teasel Muir-Harmony, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told me. John F. Kennedy had just given his now-famous moon speech, and the agency had to act fast.

Over the next decade, American astronauts landed on the moon six times. Bezos loves this history—all aerospace history, really. Blue Origin’s vehicles are named for NASA’s pioneering astronauts, and Bezos scheduled his own inaugural spaceflight for the anniversary of Apollo 11’s touchdown. The capsule carried enough mementos to fill a museum exhibit: a bronze medallion commemorating the first hot-air-balloon flight, a piece of canvas from the Wright brothers’ famous plane, the goggles Amelia Earhart wore during her flight across the Atlantic.

Although he loves to pay homage, Bezos wants to play a leading role, to contribute the pieces that will eventually land in museums. When NASA announced the winner of the lander contract in April, many in the industry were surprised. Not because NASA had picked SpaceX—SpaceX, by this point, is one of the country’s most reliable space contractors—but because the agency had picked only SpaceX. Since the Apollo days, NASA had shifted toward selecting more than one recipient for its most important space-travel contracts, both to foster competition and to have a backup. This time, NASA said it barely has the budget to pay one manufacturer, let alone two.

Blue Origin quickly filed a protest with a federal audit agency, and so did Dynetics, another disappointed contender in the moon contest. And in the old rules of space travel, companies would have waited for the verdict. But then Bezos did something that only Bezos could do: He offered NASA a $2 billion discount on his lander technology, and said he’d even throw in a free test launch of the system. “I am honored to offer these contributions,” Bezos wrote in a letter addressed directly to the NASA administrator, “and am grateful to be in a financial position to be able to do so.” If money is the problem, the offer seemed to say, I can help you there.

In the history of American space travel, no one had offered (at least not publicly) to pay out of pocket quite like this. Was this even legal? “Sure, it is unconventional, but hasn’t everyone (including Elon) been saying Jeff needs to take more of a personal interest?” Lori Garver, who served as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013, and who championed the agency’s reliance on commercial companies, tweeted. The space community buzzed with inside-baseball questions, wondering why Blue Origin hadn’t come in with a cheaper bid in the first place. The most charitable explanation for the extravagant offer was that Blue Origin officials had misjudged the market, and were now trying to lower their prices in order to compete properly. The cynical interpretation is that Bezos thought he might entice NASA with an offer no one else could match. The feds rejected Blue Origin’s appeal days later, leaving the moon contract with SpaceX.

For years, Bezos seemed content for Blue Origin to move slowly and mostly in secret, embodying the company’s mascot, the tortoise, while SpaceX and others in the industry ran loose. Now the tortoise seemed to be reconsidering its strategy. Legal battles are not uncommon in the aerospace industry; SpaceX has sued NASA before, and the Air Force several times, over contract decisions. But Blue Origin is supplementing its argument by publicly criticizing SpaceX’s winning system, Starship, as too complicated and risky. (The campaign is especially eyebrow-raising because, unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin has never flown a rocket, let alone passengers, all the way into orbit.) The campaign seems to imply not only that NASA disregarded the spirit of competition by choosing a single contractor—a typical argument in aerospace lawsuits—but that, by choosing SpaceX, the agency is endangering its astronauts. Even some Blue Origin employees are embarrassed at the aggressive approach. Bezos might value the stories of the American space effort, but by turning a national moonshot into a battle of personal egos, he is fundamentally changing the tone of its future. Many of us “have grown up in a world of state-sponsored spaceflight, and that’s changing,” Casey Dreier, a space-policy analyst at the Planetary Society, told me. “That can feel pretty jarring compared to the more stately approach we’ve had in the 50 years since Apollo.”

In the rest of his life, Bezos, who created the empire that quietly lines so much of our lives, has more power than perhaps any other person in the space industry. But space travel is a different kind of work, as Bezos himself has recognized. With Amazon, the pieces were already there—the World Wide Web, credit cards, the post office—and Bezos assembled them into a new configuration. “On the internet today, two kids in their dorm room can reinvent an industry, because the heavy-lifting infrastructure is in place for that,” Bezos said in 2016. “Two kids in their dorm room can’t do anything interesting in space.” But Bezos, with his immense fortune, believes he can create that infrastructure, and the moon landing was supposed to be one step toward that future.

At this point you might wonder, why doesn’t Bezos just pay for the whole thing himself? Forget NASA, which is “reviewing the details” of Blue Origin’s lawsuit; forget Congress and the bill nicknamed the “Bezos bailout,” which would direct NASA to pick at least two companies for the lunar-landing contract. Develop his own mission without NASA, complete with Blue Origin–built rockets and capsules and life-support systems. He could certainly afford it. But Bezos seems set on attaining that NASA stamp of approval, and to add his name to the story of American space travel. This is the man who chartered an expedition to dredge up discarded Apollo rocket engines from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

If he doesn’t get this contract, Bezos will still have his suborbital business, competing with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for customers who have enough nerve and money to buy a quick trip into the sky. He’ll someday have an orbital rocket that can deliver heavy payloads to space. “We’re going to keep working at those things, step by step, ferociously,” Bezos told reporters after his historic flight in July. “And I want to emphasize the ‘ferociously.’” Blue Origin will have other opportunities to bid on NASA contracts; after all, there’s more to a moon mission than landing gear. But how satisfying would those accomplishments be, if Bezos doesn’t get what he really wants—the moon landing, and the glory that goes along with it?