Elon Musk: SpaceX & Washington’s Corporatist Romance

Elon Musk: SpaceX & Washington’s Corporatist Romance

Throw any understanding of economic class out the window, cross the political views of a stoned hippie with those of a strange hipster, and Elon Musk seems like a successful businessman who is out to do good in the world.

After all, the trendy now-richest-man-in-the-world called himself a socialist on Twitter. He’s capitalist #1 who claims he is “cash poor” and promises that his company SpaceX’s future Mars colony will be governed by a “direct democracy.” To many, Musk might seem to be breaking society out of its nihilism and preparing to take the next giant leap for mankind into the cosmos.

However, the vanguard of America’s business magazines, Forbes, says Musk is actually making “One Giant Leap For Space Capitalism.”[1] SpaceX’s orbital launch of astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley last year, the first ever NASA launch on a commercial spacecraft, apparently marked “a major milestone in the mission of entrepreneurs to reclaim the galaxy from big government.” More recently, the company has been rapidly launching satellites into orbit to form a privately-owned internet constellation called Starlink.

            The achievements of Musk’s SpaceX are no doubt victories for capitalism; but they are not the results of the “free competition” and “smart investments” that today’s neoliberals claim are the cornerstones of the contemporary free market system. Nor do they disprove the idea that society’s conglomeration of capitalist corporations alone is too anarchic to compete with the material superiority of “big government” in space. In fact, it is because the U.S. federal government, backed by its army of taxpayers, has decided to bankroll private space-faring initiatives, that SpaceX has experienced such rapid growth and Elon Musk has become one of the richest men in the world.

Private-Sector Success – Brought To You By… the Government

            Take one of the private-sector’s greatest achievements – SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket. It was the first ever privately-funded liquid fuel launch vehicle to go into orbit around Earth, with the total development bill of around $90 million dollars footed by Elon Musk’s fortune and private investors. Each of its subsequent five launches cost another $7 million – two of which were paid for by NASA, but we can still allow the private sector this victory for the most part.

            The successes to which Musk’s company can exclusively lay claim, however, end with Falcon 1’s immediate successor – Falcon 9. NASA’s $1.4 billion development cost estimate for the latter, and its accompanying Dragon cargo spacecraft, dwarfed the financial requirements of SpaceX’s previous rocket. Musk was inevitably pushed into the arms of Washington for money, expertise, and contracts:

“SpaceX has only come this far by building upon the incredible achievements of NASA, having NASA as an anchor tenant for launch, and receiving expert advice and mentorship throughout the development process. SpaceX would like to extend a special thanks to the NASA COTS office for their continued support and guidance throughout the process. The COTS program has demonstrated that power of a true private/public partnership, and we look forward to the exciting endeavors our team will accomplish in the future.”

SpaceX Press Release, https://web.archive.org/web/20141006095016/http://www.spacex.com/news/2013/02/09/spacexs-dragon-spacecraft-successfully-re-enters-orbit

A nearly $400 million grant from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services made it possible for SpaceX to realistically begin development of its new rocket. But even with such a massive source of funding, Falcon 9 would have been a completely unprofitable venture if its creators had relied solely on the market for clients.

            A long list of multi-million dollar contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, and NASA comprises the vast majority of SpaceX’s business dealings and has contributed billions of dollars to SpaceX’s current $74 billion net worth.[2] These contracts, without which Musk’s company would no doubt have stood little chance left to its own devices in the marketplace, do not even include the further billions of dollars that Musk has received gratis from the government in the form of subsidies.[3]

            The Public-Sector Still Wins

Despite the money-mountains given away by the U.S. government to fund Musk’s development of privately-owned rocket technology, capitalism’s combined achievements in space look comparatively pathetic when stacked against a simple fact. The Soyuz rocket system, developed half a century ago by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, continues to serve as the most frequently used and most reliable launch vehicle in the world.

To this day, American astronauts use the Soyuz rocket more often than not to board the International Space Station, even with SpaceX’s Falcon series as an available alternative. The head of Russia’s Space Agency, Roscosmos, has gone as far as to compare the American made rocket to the “trampoline” of space travel.

So why has the U.S. government failed overall in the behemoth undertaking of developing rocket technology where the Soviet Union, and the Russian government that has inherited its technology, succeeded?

There seems to be two primary reasons:

1) A government which lacks ownership over the means of a production has significantly less resources at its disposal; and since the end of the Cold-War, wealth distribution has become radically centralized in the hands of the capitalist class.

2) Over the years, the U.S. war budget ($740.5 billion as of 2021) has dramatically increased at the expense of all other spheres – including that of NASA’s ($25.2 billion as of 2021). Consequently, America’s dedication to the extremely costly pursuit of civilian space technology has been squandered.

            From the perspective of government agencies whose only option for increasing financial resources is to merge them with private capital, subcontracting the heavy-lifting involved in developing new rocket technologies to companies like SpaceX is a logical course of action. But the result can hardly be called positive for American working men and women, whose taxpayer money is funding Elon Musk’s personal fortune.

            Moreover, public money is funding the development of rocket technology for whose creation capitalists are able to misleadingly claim they were responsible. Elon Musk and his space capitalist competitors exert direct legal control over the fruits borne by taxpayer funding, in what amounts to an enormous wealth transfer to those who are already exorbitantly rich.

Bright Future vs. Corporatist Nightmare

            A future dominated by a corporatist romance between the state and space capitalism would be a worrisome existence indeed.

            Instead of enjoying affordable access to public transportation – what Elon Musk demands for a ride on one of his Boring Company hyperloops goes. Or you could always buy one of his electric cars.

Instead of developing neurotechnology to cure life-threatening diseases, as Musk claims is the purpose behind his other company Neurolink – prepare to have your innermost thoughts sold to advertisers. The internet’s privately-owned tech giants have already paved most of the way there.

Instead of establishing Mars colonies for the advancement of humanity, science, and our understanding of the universe – the long-abolished company towns of the 19th century may await us in the form of profit-driven mining camps. Musk will no doubt fail to report more workplace injuries on another planet, than those which already evade legal documentation in his un-unionized Tesla factories.

            Sounds more like a nightmare than a future.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2020/05/25/elon-musks-first-astronaut-launch-is-one-giant-leap-for-space-capitalism/?sh=4aea1c8f2b49

[2] https://www.elonx.net/list-of-spacex-contracts/

[3] https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-hy-musk-subsidies-20150531-story.html#page=1

Donald Courter
Journalist, Political Reporter, Expert in Foreign Relations (USA)

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May 2024