Editor’s note: While this isn’t specifically Ukraine-focused, it provides the necessary background to understand why Elon Musk’s power extends to controlling key decisions in Ukraine—decisions that have gotten people, including children, killed.
You can read more great Ukraine coverage by both staff and community members here.
Elon Musk is neither an engineering nor business genius. He didn’t found Tesla. He didn’t design the motors, or the batteries, or the cars. He did found Space Exploration, more familiarly known as SpaceX, but again, he never set his hand to an engineering design, much less a wrench.
What Musk did do was recognize that both the automotive and space launch industries were hugely stale, completely populated by people whose policies and technology were relics of glory days long past, and that a determined—and lucky—run at these targets just might kick their asses.
No matter what people think of Musk’s failures at self-driving, or the post-apocalyptic design of the extremely late-to-the-party Cybertruck, the truth is that Tesla now holds a position in the automotive industry that its century-plus-old competitors can only envy.
Over at SpaceX, Musk has a near monopoly in an industry that others are only starting to understand. This week we got a glimpse of what that means. And that glimpse looked like Musk being able to single-handedly determine who lives and who dies.
People love to snicker about the badly fitting doors on a Tesla, or his exploding Starship prototypes. How seriously can you take someone who brought a dancer in a suit onstage to announce his new “Tesla bot,” especially when that someone has spent the last year very publicly turning a $44 billion investment into Nazi’s R Us?
Musk just spent the week declaring that it wasn’t his fault that X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, failed—it was the Jews being all … Jewy. And he’s going to sue the Anti-Defamation League. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Advertisers will flock back now.
It’s absolutely clear that Elon Musk is an asshole. A bigoted, racist, transphobic, antisemitic blockhead who thinks his own poop smells like lilacs and his every thought is the Goddam Best Idea Ever, sliced bread included.
But, as has just been vividly demonstrated in Ukraine, he’s also a guy who happens to control the space over our heads in a way that no individual, no company, and no country has done before.
How did that happen?
It happened because the existing space launch providers are a bunch of pre-Apollo-era dinosaurs whose major occupation over the last four decades has been trying to figure out how long they can stretch a government contract before breaking. Just like the auto industry, they figured that the barriers to entry were so high, and their connections with both NASA and the defense industry so good, that there was absolutely no reason to do anything that even resembled innovation. Just last year, United Launch Alliance (i.e. Boeing and Lockheed Martin) launched government satellites on a booster that’s an upgrade of a 50-year old design with an upper stage that has been flying since 1962). Outside of updated electronics, there are fish that evolve more quickly than the launchers the industry has been providing. The names alone—Atlas, Delta, Soyuz—are enough to tell that these things are old. Because I knew those names in grade school.
Launch providers were wedded to a system where they handcrafted only a small number of launch vehicles, with only the tiniest incremental changes, for staggering amounts of money. And on each flight, they threw those vehicles away and started over … only to build the same thing again.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is not particularly large. It’s not particularly groundbreaking. Except for one thing: After launch, the biggest part of the rocket lands back on Earth and can be used again. That has allowed SpaceX to massively undercut launch costs. Massively. As in, an order of magnitude cheaper. Want to put something into space on a Delta II? That’ll be $38,800 per kilogram. Or you can do it with a Falcon 9 for $2,600/kg. Heck, send several at once on a Falcon Heavy for $1,500/kg.
Even that cost differential didn’t really bother the CEOs back at Space Dinos Inc. After all, there were only so many satellites that needed launching in the first place. They had their government contracts with NASA and the Defense Department, and they had contracts with the big telecom customers and … what else really needed to be in space anyway? Besides, was someone going to send their $1 billion satellite to space in a design that hadn’t been personally patted by Alan Shepard? Who cares about saving a $50 million or so per launch?
As it turns out, a lot of people care. Yet the industry “giants” didn’t notice because while there weren’t a lot of people signing up for launches at their asking prices, there were a lot of people ready to sign up if it was cheaper. People like not-so-giant telecom companies. Smaller nations who never developed their own launch capabilities. Companies who (rightly) figured they could sell up-to-date imagery to militaries and industry. Universities eager to test new technologies. People who thought it would be cool to send Pop-Pop’s ashes into orbit.
There were a total of 186 space launches last year; 87 of those were in the United States. Of those, 61 of them were SpaceX. By the end of this year, it will almost certainly have launched more rockets than everyone in the U.S. did last year—SpaceX included. Musk’s company plans on a minimum of 100 launches next year, and is very likely to get it.
The reusable Falcon 9 has given SpaceX an essential monopoly on access to space, turning every defense contractor and traditional launch provider into an also-ran. Other providers exist in the U.S., only to the extent that the government tosses them the occasional bone to maintain the pretense that SpaceX isn’t the only game in town.
But the biggest thing that SpaceX’s aging competitors missed was this: If you make space cheap enough, there are a lot of things you can do. Things like launching your own 4,500-satellite communications system, with plans to expand that system to 45,000 satellites that can provide high speed internet access to every person on Earth, no matter where they are located.
Cheap space is so intrinsic to that idea, that competing service OneWeb also launched many of their satellites on Falcon 9s. Even more humiliating, Amazon shareholders are now suing CEO Jeff Bezos for failing to put satellites of Amazon’s upcoming Project Kuiper internet service on Falcon 9s. Bezos awarded the contracts to United Launch Alliance and a little company called Blue Origin instead, which he also happens to own. Bezos started that company before Musk created SpaceX, but they’ve yet to put a single rocket in orbit. (Next year, Jeff, there’s always next year.)
Anyway, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the engineers at Boeing or Lockheed. There’s absolutely no reason that either, or both, of them couldn’t have built reusable rockets decades ago. No reason except that they 1) benefited from high costs, and 2) saw no market for expanded access. Don’t worry. I’m sure CEOs at both companies are doing fine.
But for SpaceX, Starlink is just a first step. Falcon 9 both made Starlink possible and helped SpaceX generate the funds to launch its internet network. Now that internet network is funding the development of Starship. That’s the giant spaceship that Musk has been knocking together out of stainless steel on the Texas coast. While multiple prototypes of the ship performed an explosive bellyflop and the first attempted orbital launch ended up with an enormous rocket doing very scary pinwheels across the Texas sky, Musk already has another Starship sitting on the pad ready to go. Like, literally ready. Tested and waiting. And on Friday, the FAA moved a step toward approving that second flight.
It’s very likely another Starship will head for orbit some time in the next month, and this time, the odds are much better that it will get there. This is just the first step. There are a lot of hurdles before Starship is flying commercial payloads, much less rated for human passengers. But SpaceX is working very hard, and very fast, to make that happen for one reason: SpaceX estimates their cost to get a kilogram to orbit with Starship will be $20.
What can you do when orbit costs $20/kg? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s a good bet that Musk doesn’t know either. But launching another 4,500 (or 45,000) satellites certainly becomes a lot simpler. So does putting anything else up there.
To be honest, I love all things space. I will be cheering when Starship flies again. But I will also be scared shitless for what I believe are some pretty good reasons.
Back in the 1960s, both the Pentagon and NASA were able to wrangle well-nigh endless dollars for space by making scary noises about Russia controlling the “high ground.” It was ridiculous then. Maybe such threats are still ridiculous now. Maybe. But if Starship works, space will not mean the same thing it has meant until now.
Last week, we learned that Musk personally intervened to cut off communications to areas in Ukraine to thwart an attack that was intended to sink Russian warships docked off occupied Crimea. That attack could have played a significant role in determining the outcome of the war. On Friday, Musk admitted that he took direct action to prevent communications in the area of the attack, which reportedly left Ukrainian drone ships floating helplessly. Some of those ships washed ashore near the Russian fleet and were studied by Russian authorities eager to block future attacks.
The Russian Black Sea fleet has fired hypersonic missiles into civilian structures across Ukraine, resulting in some of the most horrific war crimes of Russia’s unprovoked, illegal invasion. Those attacks continue today due to the decision of one man.
Musk pretends that by preventing Ukraine from using the communications gear they had mostly purchased, that he was refusing to play a role in a military attack. But he played a role. He chose sides. He chose to protect the Russian warships because, he claims, he believed Russian propaganda about a nuclear threat.
Musk chose to put his own opinion over not just the strategy, but the lives of Ukrainians. They are still paying for his decision—in blood.
Perhaps most astonishingly, just two months after Musk decided to pull the plug on that attack, SpaceX announced the “Starshield” service, which it advertises as featuring "additional high-assurance cryptographic capability to host classified payloads and process data securely, meeting the most demanding government requirements.”
How many governments will trust Musk to host their secure communications when he has already demonstrated a willingness to become a one-man arbiter of who wins or loses a war?
Yet Musk’s actions in Ukraine with Starlink are just a fraction of the issue. Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have already given SpaceX an enormous edge over its competitors. Unless something changes to alter the market radically in just the next couple of years, Musk's ability to dictate to governments through his monopoly control of access to space will grow exponentially.
Things could change. Maybe Bezos will finally get its giant New Glenn flying. Maybe an innovative startup like Stoke Space will disrupt the disrupter. But it’s going to be hard, because Musk and SpaceX are not parked on their asses, planning how many golf outings it will take to make sure the next defense contract comes their way. They’re actually continuing to innovate.
The designs aren’t from Musk, but the ego and the willingness to create chaos certainly is. Right now, his actions have an outsized effect on labor, the environment, government policy, and national defense—for the U.S. as well as Ukraine. He represents a larger threat to national stability, the future of the nation, and to the whole planet than anyone seems willing to realize.
And did I mention he’s a bigoted, racist, transphobic, antisemitic jackass? Yeah? Well it was worth saying again.
You can read more great Ukraine coverage by both staff and community members here.