Amazon’s Project Kuiper, SpaceX’s Starlink Snag NASA Contracts

NASA awarded contracts to Amazon’s Project Kuiper and SpaceX’s Starlink to demonstrate communications in space. Project Kuiper received a $67 million contract and SpaceX received $70 million.

NASA also awarded contracts to Inmarsat, SES, Telesat, and ViaSat. Each satellite Internet service provider received a cut of $278.5 million in awards.

NASA currently communicates with spacecraft, including its robotic probes, through the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite network or the Deep Space Network during its missions. It aims to upgrade its communications capacity and provide incentives for development of privately owned space-based communications networks with these contracts.

It expects Project Kuiper and Starlink to complete their demonstrations by 2025. Starlink has a head start with about 2,000 functional Starlink satellites in orbit out of a planned 30,000-satellite constellation. Project Kuiper plans to launch a constellation of 3,000 Internet satellites, though it hasn’t launched any satellites so far.

Like many of Starlink’s competitors, Project Kuiper has scrapped with Starlink in the past with regulators acting as referees. It filed a challenge to Starlink’s application to the FCC to launch upgraded Starlink satellites. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has occasionally expressed annoyance with competitors like Project Kuiper and ViaSat who file regulatory challenges related to the FCC’s approval of Starlink-related licenses.

In the wake of the awards, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) criticized both Elon Musk and rival Jeff Bezos for, as he put it, treating NASA like “an ATM machine to fuel a space race” between the two wealthiest people on the planet. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin famously filed complaints with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a lawsuit in the wake of losing a lucrative contract to develop and build a lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis Program to SpaceX. Both the GAO and a federal judge dismissed the complaints. Although Bezos left his position as Amazon’s CEO, he likely still owns a large stake and controls Project Kuiper.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, however, has been hyperfocused on launching rockets – again, with only the expected annoyed noises from Musk over Bezos trying to slow him down with complaints and lawsuits. (And, yes, Elon Musk does care about where his rockets come down. He prefers to land them on his automated barges so he can use them again!)

SpaceX is currently preparing for the launch of Crew-4, which was pushed back to April 27 due to a delay in the departure of the privately organized AX-1 mission to the International Space Station. SpaceX and NASA have already conducted four successful crewed missions on the Crew Dragon as part of SpaceX’s Commercial Crew contract.

The AX-1 mission launched on April 8, 2022, in what was originally planned as a 10-day mission. However, its return was delayed due to issues like poor weather in the planned landing zone.

Despite Musk’s occasional complaints about the shenanigans of competitors, he said that SpaceX would get the job done when OneWeb approached SpaceX about launching some of its Internet satellites. OneWeb had originally planned to launch the satellites on a Russian Soyuz but had to change its plans due to Europe’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.