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Monday, October 2, 2023

Elon Musk dominates commercial space. Some think that’s a problem.

Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has singlehandedly revolutionized space travel. 

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have lowered the cost of launching people and cargo into space by orders of magnitude. Its Starship, the massive spaceship currently in development, promises to open the moon, Mars and beyond to human activity. Thus, Musk has come to dominate commercial space in ways no other entrepreneur has ever done.

However, what most people might consider a good thing, others find to be a problem. Indeed, some people in the federal government want Elon Musk to be taken down a peg.

A recent piece in the New Yorker notes the increasing disquiet some in Washington feel toward Elon Musk. Musk wields too much power for a single, private individual, in the view of many people inside the Beltway.

The article touches on the controversy that arose when Elon Musk provided Starlink services pro bono to Ukraine to assist in its war against the Russian invaders and then, nervous about being involved in a conflict “that may lead to WW3,” withheld the service. Musk has also achieved a monopoly in human spaceflight in the United States and market dominance in other launch services. It cites former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who had a good working relationship with Musk, as suggesting that this situation is a problem.

An article in Quartz answers the issues raised in the New Yorker article.

SpaceX’s monopoly in human space flight and its launch service is the result of that company’s development of reusable rocket technology. SpaceX can charge far less than its potential competitors because it recovers and reuses the first stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles and its Dragon spacecraft. Boeing’s Starliner, the other commercial crew spacecraft, is years behind schedule, as is Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle. Rocket Lab has made some strides by recently reusing one of its rocket engines.

As for the Ukraine Starlink situation, the New Yorker piece notes that Musk reached a deal with the Defense Department to provide services as a contractor. The public blowback as much as the development of another revenue stream convinced Musk to continue providing Starlink services to Ukraine in its war to expel the Russian invaders. Quartz notes that potential competitors to Starlink, such as Amazon’s Kuiper system, are years away from challenging Musk’s satellite telecommunications system.

In the meantime, according to Space News, the Justice Department has filed suit against SpaceX, claiming that it violated federal law by only hiring American citizens and legal residents with green cards. The suit claims that the rocket company turned away refugees and asylum seekers. Space News reports that the Justice Department is demanding that SpaceX give unhired refugees and asylees who were qualified for employment “fair consideration” that includes hiring. Those hired would be “eligible for back pay with interest,” and SpaceX could also face an “appropriate civil penalty.”  

The suit came as a complete surprise to Musk, who took to X, the social media network formerly known as Twitter, and declared that “SpaceX was told repeatedly that hiring anyone who was not a permanent resident of the United States would violate international arms trafficking law.” He continued: “We couldn’t even hire Canadian citizens, despite Canada being part of NORAD! This is yet another case of weaponization of the DOJ for political purposes.”

Citing International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) law, Musk also noted, that “US companies who have advanced weapons technology, such as rockets with intercontinental range, must hire people who are permanent American residents, so that the technology does not fall into the hands of countries who wish us harm.”

Robert Zimmerman, an author and journalist who writes the blog Behind the Black, called the suit, “utter garbage” and said it “puts SpaceX between a rock and a hard place.” 

“I guarantee if SpaceX had hired any illegal or refugee who was not yet a legal citizen, Biden’s State Department would have immediately sued it for violating other laws relating to ITAR (the export control laws mentioned) which try to prevent the theft of technology by foreign powers,” he continued

Whatever the technical legal merits of the case, the Biden administration has stepped in it politically. The government may regard Musk as an opponent to be taken down, but it also depends on SpaceX to launch satellites, take astronauts to and from the International Space Station and, eventually, land people on the moon. Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face doesn’t even begin to describe the situation.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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