The front page of the print edition of Saturday's Wall Street Journal featured three color pictures of a spaceship backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos through the company Blue Origin LLC. Under it is a cutline that reads in part: "Spinning Out: Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos said Friday his privately funded space venture had to destroy an unmanned rocket last week after it lost control during a test flight." The first paragraph of the article inside the paper reports that the test flight highlighted "the dramatic risks of private space ventures."
Just how "private" and "privately funded" is Mr. Bezos's space venture? One has to read deep into the news article inside the paper to learn that "NASA in recent years has doled out hundreds of millions in seed money — including more than $25 million earmarked for Blue Origin — to promote development of various private rockets and spaceships." The Journal says "the test didn't rely on federal funds and wasn't part of the company's development agreement with NASA," but even so, money is fungible, and $25 million is $25 million.
Mr. Bezos objects to Amazon collecting state and local sales taxes, but he doesn't seem to object to accepting federal tax money for his "private" space venture. Private contractors have played a prominent role in the space program for as long as I can remember. And I suppose a space program funded partly by Mr. Bezos (or by Richard Branson, or Elon Musk) is better than one funded 100% by taxpayers (though if the taxpayers are going to be putting in money, it'd be nice for them to get a piece of the upside, or at least a repayment with interest, if the ventures eventually prove a financial success). But just as a definitional issue, it strikes me as problematic to refer to a startup with $25 million in federal funding as "privately funded."
The standard disclosures here about Amazon apply.