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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The public fights between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk over their space companies point to a broader truth in the space industry: There isn't enough money to go around.

Why it matters: The promise of commercial human spaceflight still hinges on billions of dollars of investment from the U.S. government.

  • At the moment, rocket companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX have to scrape and scrounge for every government contract because it's guaranteed funding and other customers just aren't big enough to support their ambitions.
  • "If you're a business that wants to operate in that piece of the space ecosystem, your primary customer is either directly or indirectly going to be governments," Bryce Space and Technology's Carissa Christensen told me.

Driving the news: Last week, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed protests against NASA awarding SpaceX a sole contract to build a human-rated lander tasked with bringing astronauts back to the surface of the Moon within the decade.

  • "It's a setback, but I think they will still continue on with the mission because that's part of the goal and mission of the company," Voyager Space Holdings' Eric Stallmer says of Blue Origin.
  • NASA is stuck picking a winner among space companies, in part, because the space agency didn't have enough funding from Congress to choose a second provider to move on to the next stage in development.
  • Musk joked about the protest on Twitter, saying that Bezos' company "Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol."

Background: This isn't the first time SpaceX won a government contract Blue Origin was fighting hard for.

  • The Musk-founded company also received a lucrative launch contract from the Air Force, guaranteeing years of funding.

The big picture: Experts say this government funding is a means to an end — that eventually the commercial spaceflight side of the industry devoted to space activities, like mining the Moon, will look more like the satellite side, with plenty of private and government customers.

  • But for now, flying to the Moon and sending people and their cargo to space is dominated by government needs, so the funding comes from those agencies.
  • These systems are also expensive and difficult to build, requiring a lot of upfront investment that can be aided by government funds, Christensen said.

The intrigue: While they're competing for government contracts, Blue Origin and SpaceX actually have very different ways of supporting their dreams of building a city on Mars (SpaceX) or millions of people living and working in space (Blue Origin).

  • SpaceX Starlink satellites may help bring in revenue that could help fund its bigger plans, while Blue Origin has started with consumer-facing suborbital spaceflight.
  • "They all want to get to a similar place," Alexander Salter, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, told me. "They're taking slightly different routes to get there, and SpaceX's route was more useful for Uncle Sam's purposes."

What to watch: It remains to be seen whether Blue Origin's protest of the contract award will be successful, but for now, NASA has ordered SpaceX to stop work on the program until after the issue is resolved.

  • What seems clear is that this won't be the last time SpaceX and Blue Origin duke it out for government money.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Aug 3, 2021 - Science

Boeing is getting its do-over

Boeing's Starliner awaits its launch atop an Atlas V rocket. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Boeing is set to launch a redo of an uncrewed test of its Starliner spacecraft — designed to one day carry astronauts — to the International Space Station this week.

Why it matters: This is a high-stakes test for Boeing, which failed to get its Starliner to the station during its first uncrewed test flight in December 2019.

Treasury sanctions cryptocurrency exchange over ransomware transactions

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen during a congressional hearing in June 2021. Photo: Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Department of the Treasury announced Tuesday it will sanction cryptocurrency exchange SUEX for allegedly facilitating financial transactions for multiple ransomware actors.

Why it matters: The sanctions, the first against a cryptocurrency exchange platform, are a part of the Biden administration's crackdown on ransomware in response to several high-profile cyberattacks this year.

Biden pledges to double U.S. climate funding to developing nations

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly on September 21, 2021. (Eduardo Munoz-Pool/Getty Images)

Staring down a "borderless climate crisis," President Biden told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday that the U.S. will double public financial assistance to developing countries, including money to help them adapt to present-day climate impacts.

Why it matters: The failure of industrialized nations to fulfill a 2009 pledge to devote $100 billion annually to developing countries is a major impediment to a successful UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, which starts next month.