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Monday, November 20, 2023

The White House May Condemn Musk, but the Government Is Addicted to Him

The White House May Condemn Musk, but the Government Is Addicted to Him

“Rarely has the U.S. government so depended on the technology provided by a single technologist with views that it has so publicly declared repugnant.

NASA is working with Elon Musk in separate contracts collectively worth at least $4 billion.
Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The White House denounced Elon Musk on Friday for “abhorrent promotion of antisemitic and racist hate,” for his endorsement of what an administration spokesman called a “hideous lie” about Jews.

All of which might make one think the Biden administration was going to try to pull back from doing business with the world’s richest person. Except that, in recent weeks, the U.S. government has become more dependent on him than ever, agreeing to as much as $1.2 billion worth of SpaceX launches next year to put crucial Pentagon assets, including spy and command-and-control satellites, into space.

And in September, the Pentagon agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars for “Starshield,” a new, secure communications system his company has set up for the nation’s defense and intelligence systems, relying on the same clusters of Starlink satellites that have proved vital to Ukraine’s military during the war with Russia.

In private, administration officials say the Starlink satellites are critical to deterring China because they are far more resistant to Chinese efforts to disable them than the Pentagon’s own communications satellites.

These are only the latest examples of why the federal government has no viable way to break up with Mr. Musk, at least as long as the United States decides it is going to continue space exploration and deter its biggest superpower rivals. It may denounce him and declare that all Americans should reject his views. But it needs him, or at least his rockets and his satellites, more than ever.

And the White House and Pentagon both know that.

Rarely has the U.S. government so depended on the technology provided by a single, if petulant, technologist with views that it has so publicly declared repugnant. And yet, by the account of administration officials, they have no choice — and will not for a while. Because there are, right now, few viable alternatives.

It is an unusual predicament. If a top executive of one of the traditional publicly held defense contractors — Raytheon or Boeing or Lockheed Martin — had embraced an antisemitic conspiracy theory the way Mr. Musk did, there would be pressure from shareholders and customers alike for a resignation. In fact, advertisers like IBM and Apple and Warner Bros. Discovery have been announcing in recent days that they will pause doing business on X, formerly known as Twitter. Mr. Musk, rather than apologize, has threatened lawsuits.

But SpaceX is privately held, entirely controlled by Mr. Musk. (Tesla, his electric vehicle company, is publicly held.) And so far, while the White House has been outspoken, the Pentagon has been silent.

“It would be good to have alternatives, and the U.S. government has tried to develop some,” Walter Isaacson, Mr. Musk’s biographer, said in an interview on Sunday. “But no other company,” he said, including United Launch Alliance, a Boeing and Lockheed Martin venture, has “been able to make reusable rockets, or get astronauts into orbit, or get some of these heavy satellites into high-Earth orbit.”

In fact, ever since the invasion of Ukraine, the military dependency on Mr. Musk has only increased. It was Mr. Musk’s decision to ship Starlink satellite equipment to Ukraine in the hours after the invasion that kept the country able to communicate, and ultimately to target Russian assets. Similarly, when Mr. Musk declined a Ukrainian request to extend the coverage of the system to Crimea, the Ukrainians found that they could not precisely aim drones on a mission to attack Russian ships.

Later, Mr. Musk and Gen. Mark A. Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worked out a deal for Starshield, the Pentagon system that will be based on Starlink, the world’s largest satellite constellation. But the Pentagon will control the new system, so that where it can operate is not dependent on a single executive’s whims.

NASA is also working with Mr. Musk, in separate contracts collectively worth at least $4 billion, to land two sets of its astronauts on the moon with SpaceX’s new Starship rocket, bringing humans back to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years. SpaceX is also the primary way the United States supplies the International Space Station and new crews.

During the second quarter of this year, SpaceX alone sent nearly 80 percent of world’s payload by mass into space, according to an analysis by one industry consultant, Bryce Tech.

That 472,000 pounds of cargo carried by SpaceX in that time is more than five times as much as Russia and China collectively lifted off Earth into orbit and nearly 40 times as much as the closest competitor in the United States, United Launch Alliance.

It is a level of dominance unlike just about any industry sector in the world. And it is far more consequential, in terms of market share, than Tesla’s role in the electric vehicle market.

Mr. Musk, Pentagon officials said, has brought real benefit to the Defense Department and the commercial space industry worldwide.

They did pretty dramatically lower our cost to orbit,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in an interview with The Times last month.

But Pentagon officials, including Mr. Kendall, said they are working to try to expand their choices in terms of space launch, both for smaller commercial loads and the most expensive and sensitive national security launches. They soon will be taking bids from new providers to try to make the United States less reliant on any one launch provider, as it is now.

The vast market share of SpaceX comes at a moment when the demand for access to space has expanded at a historic rate, given the rapid advances in low-Earth orbit surveillance and communications technology, and an intensifying contest with China over possible military use of space.

The Pentagon has decided it wants in the coming years to launch thousands of smaller, cheaper satellites into low-Earth orbit. The goal is to better defend against a possible effort by China to disable communications by knocking out the relatively small numbers of traditional, much larger and more expensive satellites the Defense Department has in space.

“Imagine,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in a speech earlier this year, “systems on orbit, flung into space scores at a time, numbering so many that it becomes impossible to eliminate or degrade them all.”

In short, more reliance likely on SpaceX.

The United States’ commercial space launch industry also is largely addicted to SpaceX, at least for now.

Competing launch companies, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Europe’s Arianespace and other new space industry entrants such as Rocket Lab, Relativity Space and Firefly Aerospace, do not yet have their own new medium launch rocket systems ready to go.

Even the major military contractors, Boeing and Lockheed, are years behind schedule with their new heavy-launch rocket, Vulcan, though it is expected to have its first test before the end of this year.

For now, this means there is a major shortage of available launch capacity — and SpaceX is just about the only company in the Western world that has a large amount of room to sell, be it to the Pentagon or private-sector customers.

“They aren’t quite a monopoly,” said Chris Daehnick, a former senior official at Air Force Space Command who is now a space-industry consultant at McKinsey. “But in the near term, if you have to get the space, there’s one way to do it right now, unless you already have a contract, and that is SpaceX.”

This level of dominance has already brought expressions of concern from some members of Congress and investigators at the Senate Armed Services Committee, who are examining SpaceX’s commanding role in providing the military access to space and space-based communications.

“Serious national security liability issues have been exposed,” Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, said in a statement in September, after it was first disclosed that SpaceX had limited Ukraine’s ability to use its Starlink system at one point during the war.

“Neither Elon Musk, nor any private citizen,” he said, “can have the last word when it comes to U.S. national security.”

David E. Sanger covers the Biden administration and national security. He has been a Times journalist for more than four decades and has authored several books on challenges to American national security. More about David E. Sanger

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