Bezos and Musk Should Play by the Same Rules Their Competitors Have To

Air Force photo of a Boeing Delta IV Heavy launch

As a space nerd and former NASA producer, I'm a fan of what Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos bring to humanity's efforts in space. They build sexy rockets and they make them fly. They bring some competition and verve, both of which we need to inspire us to get off this planet and inhabit new ones. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin develop their launch systems in Texas, my home state—a state with a deep heritage in spaceflight.

But. They're not the only game in town.

On September 27, 2019, the space billionaires cashed in. Blue Origin (Bezos' company), and SpaceX (Musk's company) were both awarded several million dollars from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. These high-value technology contracts are a boon to both companies and their founders’ bank accounts. But as Bezos and Musk continue to gain influence within the space industry, people are beginning to wonder: how will their companies respond to that growing clout?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t what many had hoped. Rather than use their resources to further America’s interests in space, Bezos and Musk may have decided to use their influence to line their own pockets.

The two businessmen have a history of doing this. Bezos’ Amazon is often criticized as a titan of cronyism, leveraging its economic prospects to obtain billions in tax breaks from local governments that it frankly doesn’t need as the most valuable corporation on earth. Similarly, Musk frequently uses his political capital to garner subsidies for his electric vehicle company Tesla. Now, the two entrepreneurs have set their sights on their next target—space.

Both Blue Origin and SpaceX are causing massive headaches for the U.S. space program—for seemingly no other reason than to further their own status as an industry player. Just a week after filing an official protest over the Air Force’s procurement plan for space launch services, Blue Origin has moved forward with its PR push to force America’s space program to change. The company is arguing that the Air Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program—America’s premier aerospace initiative—should be forced to expand its competition. If Blue Origin got its way, it would mandate that the program select more than the requisite two launch service providers. Who would this really help, though?

SpaceX has likewise followed suit, advocating that for the sake of fair and honest competition, it too should be awarded lucrative government contracts. Using its pull in Congress, SpaceX and its allies have pushed legislation that would soften the rigorous competitive standards of the nation’s spacefaring programs. What’s more, Musk has even gone so far as to sue the Air Force over its launch provider selection process because it chose not to select SpaceX for the initial phase of the NSSL program.

The rationale for these companies’ actions appears quite self-serving. Rather than contend with other aerospace firms under the mutually-agreed-upon terms of competition, Blue Origin and SpaceX are trying to change the rules of the game for their own benefit. For Musk and Bezos, it doesn’t matter that the defense community stands firmly behind the current iteration of America’s space program. Rigorously competitive initiatives like the NSSL cut into Bezos’ and Musk’s bottom lines. So, despite the potentially devastating consequences for America’s national security, these programs must be neutered.

This entitled mentality is dangerous. It is putting the military’s intelligence communities in jeopardy. But unfortunately, it isn’t anything surprising. Some men like Bezos and Musk have come to expect the world to cater to their interests. And when the world doesn’t budge on its own, they are accustomed to using their tremendous resources to force it to. That’s why Musk has a history of leaning heavily on his litigation team, protesting government action whenever it is disadvantageous to him personally. For the very same reason, Bezos is going hard after the National Enquirer—forcing them to pay retribution for investigating his personal life.

We shouldn’t allow Bezos and Musk, or anyone else, to put their own interests above the United States’ interests in space. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX offer a viable path to return to space through competition. But they have to win—or lose—the competition based on the merits on a level playing field with other viable competitors. They can both push each other and our national space programs to do better and go farther. But in the case of the NSSL, the competition is settled and it’s time to move forward.