Spacefight: Jeff Bezos Declares War on Elon Musk

Illustration by Braulio Amado

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are officially at war. And how.

On Wednesday, Bezos presided over a press conference in which his rocket company Blue Origin formed a partnership with United Launch Alliance, or ULA. The deal between the companies will see Blue Origin develop an engine for use with ULA’s rockets, which currently carry U.S. government and military satellites to space. The deal helps ULA save face, because it gives the company—a joint partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin—access to an American-made engine instead of the Russian-made RD-180, on which it currently relies. The tie-up also unites two of the staunchest rivals to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company.

To date, SpaceX has had far more public success than Blue Origin. It has sent supplies to the International Space Station, taken up satellites for numerous commercial customers, and run public tests of its reusable rockets. Earlier this week, SpaceX also secured a $2.6 billion contract from NASA to take astronauts to the International Space Station, ending the U.S. dependence on Russian capsules.

Blue Origin, by contrast, has operated in near-total secrecy and dribbled out information only about its engine and rocket development. With Bezos’s fortune behind it, the company has been free to hone its technology without chasing commercial work. Overall, Blue Origin shares SpaceX’s goals of developing reusable spacecraft capable of traveling to other planets.

SpaceX and Blue Origin have sparred now and again. They fought over access to a NASA launchpad; SpaceX won that round. And Musk hasn’t been shy about pointing out Blue Origin’s lack of a public track record for its missions. They’re also the two commercial spaceflight companies that seem to be placing the most emphasis on advancing reusable rockets. Whichever company perfects that technology first would gain a huge cost edge in the launch business.

Blue Origin’s deal with ULA, though, takes the competition to a new level.

SpaceX has been locked in a nasty fight with ULA and its congressional backers. SpaceX wants to be able to compete for sensitive government launches and has pointed out that it can undercut ULA massively on launch costs; it makes all its engines and rockets in Los Angeles. ULA, by contrast, relies on the Russian engines to send up the U.S.’s most sensitive military and spy equipment. (When asked to defend its use of the Russian engines, ULA has pointed out that it translated the blueprints to the engines. Seriously.) SpaceX has urged the government to put its sensitive launches up for bid instead of handing them to a government-created monopoly.

Blue Origin has been working on an engine called BE-4 for three years, and it’s this engine that ULA plans to use with its rockets. During the press conference, ULA’s new chief executive, Tory Bruno, said the company hopes to launch the BE-4 in about four years.

It’s a bit of a shocker to see Blue Origin team up with ULA, which is seen as the major example of old, costly, bureaucratic space companies. Blue Origin and SpaceX have been all about trying to make their flights cheap and efficient enough for companies to conduct dozens of automated launches per week. The whole idea behind the startups was to undermine the existing system and replace it with something modern and better.

Instead of doing that, it looks as if Blue Origin is giving the old guard a leg up in its competition with SpaceX. Such an arrangement would make obvious business sense for Blue Origin, since it can sell its engines and will share development costs with ULA. But, as mentioned earlier, the company has never been terribly concerned about finding commercial work to offset its R&D budget.

For ULA, the partnership with Blue Origin could be a huge win. The company gets to avoid embarrassing harangues from Congress over its use of Russian engines. It also gets access to an engine that could be key to a reusable rocket program of its own. ULA goes from looking like a bumbling laggard to being a cutting-edge player.

SpaceX has the best recent track record of engine development, having built its rocket systems and capsule thrusters over the past decade while also making major progress with the reusable technology. In an interview, Musk welcomed the new Blue Origin-ULA challenge. “Competitors ganging up against you is the sincerest form of flattery,” he says.