Billionaire CEOs are like betta fish. Put them in the same tank and they might get territorial (or write passive-aggressive tweets). At least, that seems to be the case for Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who find themselves in an ongoing feud over the race to space.
The two, who have held rotating titles as the richest man in the world (that currently goes to Musk), started off on shaky grounds from the very first day they met, according to Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Elon Musk, titled simply Elon Musk. It seems as if the two high-powered individuals find fault in the other’s similar traits.
In the early 2000s, Bezos was a single-digit billionaire and Amazon was still synonymous with selling books. Musk was further behind, yet to make his first billion by investing in Tesla. The two ambitious techies shared some commonalities; Isaacson wrote that both leaders focused on “building reusable rockets” and exploring spaces as “a missionary rather than a mercenary,” meaning they prioritized finding more resources for civilization rather than making money from the endeavor. For Bezos, that took shape in Blue Origin; for Musk, it was SpaceX.
As the story goes, Musk reached out to Bezos in 2004 to give him a tour of his SpaceX offices. After their playdate, Bezos was reportedly surprised to get “a somewhat curt email from Musk expressing annoyance that Bezos had not reciprocated by inviting him to Seattle to see Blue Origin’s factory,” according to Isaacson. Bezos complied, inviting Musk and his then wife Justine Musk to tour Blue Origin. In what surely made for an awkward dinner afterward, Bezos and then wife Mackenzie Scott, a now major philanthropic-donor, reportedly listened to Musk’s unsolicited advice about one of Bezos’ ideas.
“Dude, we tried that and that turned out to be really dumb, so I’m telling you don’t do the thing we did,” Musk apparently said “with his usual intensity,” as Isaacson wrote. It didn’t sit all that well with Bezos, who recalled “feeling that Musk was a bit too sure of himself, given that he had not yet successfully launched a rocket,” Isaacson added.
But if you ask Musk he’d likely say he was just trying to help. “I actually did my best to give good advice, which he largely ignored,” Musk said, according Christian Davenport’s book The Space Barons, which explored the billionaire entrepreneurs trying to resurrect space.
A year later, Musk followed up asking Bezos if Amazon could review Justine’s new book—“an urban horror thriller about demon-human hybrid,” as Isaacson described it. He offered to write a personal review instead since that’s not what Amazon does, only to receive a “brusque reply” from Musk. But the Amazon CEO still reportedly wrote the review.
Relations remain tense
As Bezos and Musk both became richer (and as wealth inequality spiked) and their dreams of space grew more fanciful and funded, the rivalry between the two ballooned. Between patent disputes and thinly-pointed tweets, they’ve spent the better part of the decade needling the other while at times pausing to give the other praise for innovation.
In 2013, the two beefed over who could lease a NASA launchpad. SpaceX eventually won out. Musk has reacted and re-posted stale memes at Bezos’ expense, and Bezos too has engaged in his own fun, congratulating SpaceX for landing a craft by saying “Welcome to the club!” In 2021, NASA chose SpaceX instead of Blue Origin to help develop the next moon landing projects. But Bezos didn’t go down easily, fighting the decision only to be overruled by a judge. Their ongoing feud has even led to a lawsuit.
Their interests actually run tandem to each other in a way that doesn’t need to engender competition, but would rather make for a good partnership, associate professor at University of East Anglia Ben Little writes for The Conversation. “It is easy to see that, at a basic level, Musk’s and Bezos’s stated plans for space domination are complementary, rather than competitive,” Little states, adding that while Bezos thinks Musk’s idea of colonizing Mars is not grounded, Musk believes Bezos’ idea of building a “giant orbiting space station” infrastructure won’t be developed quickly enough.
Musk has implied his needling remarks over the years are supposed to motivate Bezos. “In some ways, I’m trying to goad him into spending more time at Blue Origin so they make more progress,” Musk once told the Financial Times.
Whether or not the feud is legit or one-sided is unsure, unless you’re in a billionaire’s mind. But one thing that is for sure: Their first meeting was not (inter)stellar.