The Great Billionaire Space Caper

by Matt Taibbi Apr 12, 2022

In a story that shows how hard it is to deter a billionaire ravenous for public money, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and The Washington Post fame appears to have prevailed upon buddies in the Senate to keep alive a childhood dream of not only going to the moon, but getting the public to pay for it. A Bezos company officially lost this moon contract three times in less than a year, but the fourth time’s a charm: thanks to congress, his Jason Voorhees-like determination may be rewarded with a contract worth $6 billion or more.

On March 28th, Joe Biden released his fiscal year 2023 budget, which despite eyebrow-raising changes — in particular, a 10% increase in defense spending — generated few headlines. One of the few items the press did cover was this passage:

The Budget provides $7.5 billion, $1.1 billion above the 2021 enacted level, for Artemis lunar exploration. Artemis would return American astronauts to the Moon as early as 2025, land the first woman and person of color on the Moon…

It was unclear if the budget language was describing one person, or two, or more (headline writers seemed confused on that front as well). Still, the FY 2023 budget merely put into writing what NASA announced last year, and what’s been the buzz on the Hill for a while: that the space agency’s next big goal is to put a black woman on the moon. “The Apollo generation,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in March, “has passed the torch.”

A lofty enough goal, but then there was the fine print. Much as the military once replaced cheap army cafeteria food with Cinnabon franchises and high-cost meals prepared by firms like KBR, and the NIH basically exists to provide free R&D to pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, NASA no longer builds much for itself. Instead, it’s lately become little more than a vehicle for funding the phallic moon race between Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos-owned Blue Origin.

The feud between the two billionaires began years ago, when congress funded the solicitation of three private commercial proposals for the next moon landing, including one from SpaceX, one from Blue Origin, and a third from a company called Dynetics located in Senator Richard Shelby’s home state of Alabama. Last April, Musk and SpaceX appeared to come out on top after NASA declared SpaceX the winner of a $2.9 billion contract to build the spacecraft that would deliver the next NASA astronauts to the lunar surface. Bezos’s Blue Origin had submitted a bid roughly twice that size.

When NASA rejected his $5.9 billion bid, Bezos went ape. He fought back in multiple ways. Among the first moves was he and Blue Origin filing a 175-page complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), asserting that NASA had “moved the goalposts at the last minute” by picking just one company’s lunar landing plan. It was expected that NASA would pick two firms, but decided on SpaceX only because of “short funding.” Essentially, Bezos was complaining that he’d submitted a higher bid than he needed to because he expected that NASA would be spending more money. Now that he knew he actually needed to watch costs, he sought a chance to submit a more taxpayer-friendly proposal.

Lest anyone think I’m joking about the phallic aspect of this competition, check out the Twitter response from Musk to Bezos’s GAO complaint:

For years now, Musk and Bezos have provided ample material for America’s fading late-night TV comedy scene with their private space-dong race. When glimpses of Musk’s “Big Fucking Rocket” (BFR) space-tourism vehicle reached the public, Twitter exploded with cheering comments from Musk fans like “It looks like a dick with fins!” and “Chief, that looks like a $500 dildo.”

When Bezos soon after went to the heavens in a private vessel, he did so in a rocket that was 18 meters tall, but somehow looked exactly five and one quarter inches high and appeared to have a metal glans. This prompted an onslaught of abusive tweets, Dr. Evil jokes, and chuckling headlines. (Click on Mashable’s A small replica of Jeff Bezos’ penis-shaped rocket can be yours for $69 for a very amusing photo.) It was difficult to find TV coverage of the Bezos space jaunt that didn’t involve uncontrolled laughter.

All this was funny, so long as the premise was “Rich guys spending their own money shooting themselves into space in huge overcompensating cylinders.” However, the Artemis project turned the SpaceX-Blue Origin battle on its head. This was not just a war to see who could build the bigger jockstrap, but to see who could get U the Taxpayer to pay for it.

Musk appeared to win, and when Bezos’s GAO complaint failed, he moved on to filing a federal suit to “to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America,” i.e. to give Bezos the effing contract. However, federal judge Richard Hertling quickly called BS on that and ruled against Bezos last November, seemingly checkmating the diminutive money-devourer.

Bezos went on Twitter to say it wasn’t the ruling he wanted, but that Blue Origin “respects the court’s judgment” and wished “full success” for SpaceX. Of course it later turned out that Bezos had no intention at all of respecting the court’s judgment, which makes it a tad funnier that Musk decided at that point not to meet Bezos on the field of faux-graciousness. He tweeted the following about Hertling’s ruling:

Having struck out with the GAO and the federal courts, Bezos moved back to the Senate. Washington’s Maria Cantwell, Bezos’s home senator, had by then already introduced an amendment to the bill funding Artemis, essentially asking for a re-think of the decision to go with Musk only. The Amendment may be a museum-worthy effort in the history of woke-washing. Two key passages:

Commercial entities in the United States have made significant investment and progress toward the development of human-class lunar landers…

Maintaining multiple technically-credible providers within NASA commercial programs is a best practice that reduces programmatic risk.

Translation: Bezos has already spent a lot of money trying to get taxpayers to send him to the moon, but since he already lost, let’s fund two moon programs!

An additional subtext: “How will we ever get a black woman to the moon, if we don’t give Bezos billions?”

Saying that “in carrying out the Artemis program, the Administrator should ensure that the entire Artemis program is inclusive and representative of all people of the United States, including women and minorities,” the Amendment language would authorize not just the $5.9 billion Bezos originally bid, but as much as $10 billion in new money for a second moon plan.

Only Bernie Sanders seemed to think it odd that a man who bears a net worth of over $180 billion is working this hard to get the taxpayer to fulfill his childhood space fantasy (Bezos called watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon a “seminal” moment in his life). At the end of last week, Sanders introduced a counter-amendment to remove the “$10 billion bailout” for Bezos’s “space hobby” from the moon bill.

“Bezos has enough money to buy a $500 million yacht,” Sanders said on the Senate floor, showing pictures as he noted that neither Bezos nor Amazon pays much of any federal taxes. He then showed photos of Bezos’s $23 million, 25-bathroom mansion. “Not quite sure you need 25 bathrooms, but that’s not my business,” Sanders quipped.

Sanders is skilled at billionaire-trolling, but the problem is, he’s had too much practice. The effort to snatch back money from Bezos seems a longshot to be successful. The question of whether or not the funds ultimately get appropriated will be resolved behind closed doors, after the current recess in congress, when the bill goes to committee. Anyone want to lay odds on how much House and Senate members end up doling out in private?

Whoring out of NASA to billionaires is serious business. Back in 2015, a bill called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, passed by unanimous consent, gave private commercial enterprises the ownership rights to celestial bodies discovered through space travel. “A U.S. citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained,” the bill read, “including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell it according to applicable law.”

For this reason, congress appropriating NASA funds to the likes of Musk and Bezos to build long-distance rocketry and landers is not just about symbolic missions, but the space version of the NIH: giving space hobbyists free R&D to become mega-oligarchs via the limitless potential offered by space prospecting. “The first trillionaire there will ever be is the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids,” is how Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, around the time of the passage of the 2015 act.

The bards of Washington have rarely looked at this angle. Even Bloomberg highlighted “first Moon Trips for women, people of color” and “climate change research” in its recent coverage. Most reports have buried the lede on the Musk-Bezos badger-fight for taxpayer cash under NASA’s new rallying cry, which is essentially to make sure the next glories-of-space movie like First Man doesn’t have to include another “Whitey on the Moon” scene. Whoever comes out of the Artemis capsule first, a primary winner of the mission will be a billionaire with his teeth in your wallet. Maybe two, if congress gets its way.

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