Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are worth a combined $373 billion as I write this. That’s pretty absurd when you think about it. The two of them alone are worth roughly the gross domestic product (GDP) of Denmark.
You wouldn’t think two men with that kind of net worth would have much to fight about. Honestly, if it were me, I’d like to think I have better things to do than get in a feud over one of my side projects losing a $3 billion contract. I mean, I’d be happy just having a side project building rockets meant to eventually carry people to Mars.
Then again, the feud between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos isn’t new–at least not when it comes to space. The two have previously battled on multiple occasions in the courtroom, as well as the court of public opinion, over launch platforms, patents, and even dueling press announcements.
This time, in case you missed it, Musk’s SpaceX won a contract from NASA to build a lander to return American astronauts to the moon. Blue Origin, which is owned by Bezos, is challenging the $2.9 billion contract on the grounds that NASA misjudged important considerations in proposals from both companies, and because it wasn’t given an opportunity to revise its proposal–something SpaceX did.
Musk, true to form, took to Twitter to troll Bezos and Blue Origin. I’ll just leave the tweet here without comment.
Sure, the contract is worth almost $3 billion, but let’s be clear, that isn’t what this is about. That’s barely a rounding error on the income statement for either man, never mind that neither needs the money. Bezos, for his part, has said he plans to spend about a billion dollars a year of his own money to fund Blue Origin. Musk has regularly touted the success of his rocket test flights, even when they end in a fiery explosion.
Instead, the feud between the two men comes down to something much more simple–pride. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse Musk or Bezos of an excess of humility, but in this case, I don’t think pride is necessarily a bad thing.
Look, while this relatively small NASA contract is about sending Americans back to the moon, the two companies are trying to eventually send people to Mars. That’s not to say that sending people to the moon isn’t a big deal, but sending them to Mars most certainly is.
Bezos, in an interview in 2018, put it this way:
This is super important to me, and I believe on the longest timeframe–and really here I’m thinking of a timeframe of a couple hundred years to over millions of decades–I believe and I get increasing conviction with every passing year, that Blue Origin, the space company, is the most important work that I’m doing.
It takes a certain amount of something to make sending people to Mars your company’s goal. Both Musk and Bezos clearly have that something, having led two of the most influential tech companies of this century.
But there’s one thing this contract gives them that is far more important than a few billion dollars–legitimacy. For both men, their adventures in space have gone from interesting (if expensive) passion projects to a life purpose.
In an interview just this week, here’s how Musk explained it:
You know, it’s dangerous, it’s uncomfortable, it’s a long journey, you might not, you know, come back alive. But it’s a glorious adventure, and it’ll be an amazing experience.
I think it’s fair to say that “glorious adventure” is an understatement. In that light, it’s not hard to see why this small contract is actually a big deal for both companies. It’s about the pursuit of something bigger than themselves.
“The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” said Bezos. “And if we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited–for all practical purposes–resources and solar power. That’s the world that I want my great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to live in.”
That’s something worth fighting over.