Sen. Bernie Sanders took to the pages of The Guardian on Friday to inveigh against legislation currently before Congress that, if approved, could provide billionaire Jeff Bezos' space flight company with a lucrative NASA contract to build a moon lander.
"At a time when over half of the people in this country live paycheck to paycheck, when more than 70 million are uninsured or underinsured and when some 600,000 Americans are homeless, should we really be providing a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout for Bezos to fuel his space hobby?" Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Senate Budget Committee, wrote in his op-ed. "I don't think so."
"The time is now," he added, "to have a serious debate in Congress and throughout our country as to how to develop a rational space policy that does not simply socialize all of the risks and privatize all of the profits."
The bill at issue is the COMPETES Act, a measure ostensibly aimed at bolstering U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, providing more funding for technological research and development, and enhancing the nation's space exploration efforts.
The Vermont senator has warned for weeks—including in remarks on the Senate floor—that the bill is rife with "corporate welfare." Sanders has trained much of his ire on a provision that would give NASA $10 billion to pick a company to build a second moon lander after the agency awarded SpaceX—a company owned by billionaire Elon Musk—a $2.9 billion contract to make a lunar rocket last year.
Blue Origin, which competed for the original contract, unsuccessfully sued NASA over the SpaceX deal, claiming the contract was improperly awarded. Last July, Bezos and a handful of others rode a Blue Origin rocket to the edge of space, a 10-minute trip for which he was widely derided.
With the COMPETES Act, Congress appears poised to give Bezos another shot at a NASA contract. The House and Senate have both passed versions of the legislation, but the two bills must be reconciled before they can reach President Joe Biden's desk for final approval.
Sanders is pushing lawmakers to strip out the $10 billion "bailout to Blue Origin" and attach conditions to the measure's proposed taxpayer subsidies to the U.S. microchip industry. As Politico reported last month, Bezos' company is "working behind the scenes to combat the Vermont Independent's assault on its possible role in NASA's public-private partnership to land on the moon by 2025."
In his op-ed for The Guardian on Friday, Sanders argued that "this issue goes well beyond just one contract for Bezos to go to the moon," noting, "In 2018, private corporations made over $94 billion in profits from goods or services that are used in space—profits that could not have been achieved without generous subsidies and support from NASA and the taxpayers of America."
"NASA has identified over 12,000 asteroids within 45 million kilometers of Earth that contain iron ore, nickel, precious metals, and other minerals," the senator wrote. "Just a single 3,000-foot asteroid may contain platinum worth over $5 trillion. Another asteroid's rare earth metals could be worth more than $20 trillion alone. According to the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, 'There are twenty-trillion-dollar checks up there, waiting to be cashed!'"
"The questions we must ask are: who will be cashing those checks?" Sanders continued. "Who will, overall, be benefiting from space exploration? Will it be a handful of billionaires or will it be the people of our country and all of humanity?"