I was not around in the 1960s, when NASA embarked on its first mission to land people on the moon, but I have to assume that no one involved in the effort was making penis references to millions of people. The space brawl is illustrative of the modern state of American human spaceflight in a couple of ways. The first is that private companies now do the kind of space work that was once reserved for government agencies. SpaceX has launched astronauts to the International Space Station, and plans to fly non-astronauts as soon as the end of the year. Blue Origin appears closer to starting tourist flights to the edge of space. The vision of the modern-day spacefarer is poised to change dramatically.
The second is that our space icons are now the powerful owners of private companies, who have infused space travel with their own personal narratives and idiosyncratic ambitions. During the Apollo era, the most visible participants in the moon effort were the astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins—men who were certainly venerated but who approached their task with the duty of soldiers. At this moment, the most visible participants are eccentric billionaires having rocket-measuring contests in public.
As part of the Artemis program, named for Apollo’s sister, NASA aims to land the first woman and person of color on the moon. But can you name any of the astronauts the agency has chosen to train for these missions, or any of the 11 astronauts on the ISS right now? Probably not, but you likely know that Musk is also responsible for Tesla, and Bezos for Amazon. You’re likely aware that Musk is dating a famous singer, and have seen that picture of a muscular Bezos in a puffer vest. You might have even heard that Musk is hosting Saturday Night Live this weekend. Regardless of what happens with the moon contract, these men will help shape humankind’s future in space for decades to come.
Musk and Bezos have a colorful history of sparring over and snarking about space matters. When Blue Origin launched a rocket and then landed it upright back on the ground in a historic first, Musk praised Bezos, but pointed out that Blue Origin had only grazed the edge of space, and did not enter orbit. A month later, when SpaceX achieved the same feat with an orbital rocket, Bezos ignored the distinction and congratulated the company with a “Welcome to the club!” tweet. The billionaires have competed for the use of a famous NASA launchpad at Cape Canaveral, and scuffled over their respective initiatives to launch giant constellations of internet satellites into orbit. The companies have different mantras: Blue Origin’s is slow and steady, while SpaceX’s is more of a primal scream. The men’s starry-eyed dreams differ too: Musk wants to build a city on Mars; Bezos envisions floating stations of cities and beaches held in place by artificial gravity. But first, they both really, really want to be the one to take humankind back to the moon.