Space Exploration Technologies Corp., commonly known as SpaceX, the darling of the launch industry, is one of the most valuable private companies in the US. With almost quarter of all launches worldwide being handled by SpaceX, and with Starship set to revolutionize the launch industry, SpaceX appears to be an unstoppable industry force, but is it?
Eric Berger, the senior space editor at Ars Technica , posted a bombshell of a tweet.
After the briefing, Administrator Bill Nelson told me that he spoke with SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell last weekend. He asked if Twitter/Musk was going to be a distraction to SpaceX and its commitments to NASA. "She said to me in no uncertain terms, 'I assure you it is not.'"— Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) December 11, 2022
To put this into context, back in 2019, the Department of Defense (DoD) was investigating whether or not it properly certified SpaceX to provide national security launches . We do not know why this happened.
Several weeks later, Elon Musk’s security clearance was being reviewed because he was smoking marijuana on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Even though that was legal under California law, it’s still a Class A misdemeanor under federal law. In fact, three or more possession convictions can raise this to a felony and this makes it much harder to get a security clearance. If he loses it, he may lose access to the classified material necessary to plan launches for the DoD. That doesn’t mean SpaceX is out, but it would make it harder for him to have an active role.
Then, in October of this year, reports surfaced about Biden administration concerns over the national security implications of Musk’s behavior . He’s made pro-Russian statements, his reliance on foreign investors to buy Twitter (including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and a cryptocurrency exchange run by a Chinese-Canadian), and his hints of cutting off Starlink service in Ukraine have all combined to send very confusing signals as to his intentions. The White House later denied those reports of having concerns .
Shortly after this, SpaceX had a major management reshuffle , with COO Gwynne Shotwell and vice president Mark Juncosa being brought in to focus on Starship production. Elon Musk is famous for personally handling things like this, but seems to be bogged down by his Twitter antics.
The DoD is in a bind. United Launch Alliance (ULA) are replacing the Atlas 5 rocket with the Vulcan, but Blue Origin has struggled to produce the BE-4 engines needed. Just over a month ago, Blue Origin delivered the first BE-4 engines, but they’re years late and there’s no evidence that Blue Origin can ramp up production to match SpaceX. Now that Soyuz rockets are no longer an option, the DoD faces the nightmare of SpaceX or nothing. There are many other launch companies, including Firefly Aerospace and Rocket Lab, but they can’t match the cadence, reliability, or launch capabilities of SpaceX. Other rocket companies are either non-US based, or are little more than PowerPoint presentations.
Now the situation is getting worse. The industry needs more launches than launch providers can supply. Even if Musk ultimately is determined to be a security risk, there’s no viable alternative to SpaceX other than ULA. If Blue Origin can’t deliver enough of the BE-4 engines, it’s SpaceX or nothing. This is not a good position to be in.
This is why Berger’s tweet about NASA is so important. NASA is asking, point-blank, if they can trust Musk. The DoD has had concerns. The Biden administration has (allegedly, but probably true) concerns, and now NASA is asking. So much of the industry is relying on SpaceX and Musk is busy tweeting things like my pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci . Not only is this buying into far-right conspiracy theories—something which is sure to put people on edge—but it’s mocking the LGBT community. The latter point probably isn’t an issue from a security point of view, but the QAnon-style tweets, his comments in support of Russia, his support for white supremacists and neo-Nazis on Twitter are sounding alarm bells.
After months of chaos, Musk seems be begrudgingly admitting that his tenure as head of Twitter may not have been a good thing. He’s let Twitter users vote on whether he runs Twitter and they clearly voted him out.
Should I step down as head of Twitter? I will abide by the results of this poll.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 18, 2022
Perhaps Musk getting booed off stage is the wakeup call he needed. Perhaps he couldn’t handle the constant hate thrown at him. Or perhaps he’s realized that running a social media company is harder than he thought.
Whatever the reason, if Musk does step down, it might not happen for months and this won’t change much. He will still own Twitter and whoever takes over his role will be doing what Musk tells him to do. But maybe this will end the daily drama that has accompanied Musk’s takeover of Twitter. This might also allow Musk to give much needed attention to SpaceX.
But I can’t help but shake the feeling that SpaceX might not want that attention.