Sen. Bernie Sanders is asking us to once again consider the relationship between private space companies and NASA. In an op-ed published in The Guardian on Friday, he said he's worried the venerable space agency is basically turning into "an ATM machine" to facilitate the space race between Blue Origin and SpaceX. That, in turn, raises questions about if the final frontier will be privatized.
"If we are going to send more human beings to the moon and eventually to Mars, who will control the enterprise and what will be the purpose of that exploration? Will the goal be to benefit the people of the United States and the entire world, or will it be a vast boondoggle to make billionaires even richer and open up outer space to corporate greed and exploitation?" Sanders wrote.
His remarks come as Congress looks to give NASA $10 billion, some of which would go toward the organization's public-private partnership to land on the moon by 2025. Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin will almost certainly vie for a new lunar lander deal after it was passed over by NASA in favor of Elon Musk's SpaceX for a different contract last year.
Blue Origin isn't a lock to win the award, of course. The private space race includes not just Bezos' and Musk's companies, but others, such as ULA, that could also throw their hat in the ring. But Blue Origin and SpaceX have been front and center in competing for federal contracts, with the former even suing NASA after SpaceX won the initial lunar lander contract. (The suit failed.) The fact that Blue Origin and SpaceX are owned by the two richest people on Earth has added another layer of intrigue.
None of this has sat well with the senator from Vermont. A few weeks ago, Sanders tweeted that Bezos doesn't need that money to fund his space ambitions. "If you're worth $180 BILLION, if you've got mansions and a superyacht, if your hobby is trying to go to the moon or Mars or wherever, you're doing pretty well for yourself," he wrote.
In the Guardian piece, Sanders expanded on why he sees the private space contracts as a form of welfare for the wealthiest people on the planet. He wrote the private space industry is "already very profitable and has the potential to become exponentially more profitable in the future. Bank of America predicts that over the next eight years the space economy will triple in size to $1.4tn – that’s trillion with a 't.'"
Blue Origin and SpaceX did not immediately return Protocol's request for comment.
Sanders' op-ed comes as the world's tech titans play an increasingly large role in shaping public life and solutions to pressing problems. Bill Gates has plowed money into public health, including vaccine development, while arguing in favor of companies holding on to intellectual property rights. (After criticism, his foundation said it supported a "narrow waiver during the pandemic" for COVID-19 vaccine IP.) Addressing climate change has also come into focus. Bezos, Gates and other tech leaders have pursued philanthropic efforts as well as started venture capital funds that are plowing big money into speculative but necessary tech like carbon dioxide removal.