No one influences spaceflight today more than Elon Musk. SpaceX dominates the launch market with the Falcon 9, while Starlink is becoming a major, even essential, satellite broadband provider. Waiting in the wings is Starship, a vehicle that promises to further disrupt the launch market while also delivering astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in more than half a century.
And yet, Musk is more distracted from space than ever. His attention, long balanced between SpaceX and electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, now seems consumed by his latest acquisition, Twitter. Since taking over the social media company in a quixotic $44 billion acquisition in October, he has been fully engaged trying to remake — or break — the company.
Musk has long been both a power user of Twitter and one of the most powerful people to use it. It is his primary marketing channel and a place where legions of fans rally behind his lofty ambitions to colonize Mars and cheer his earthy memes.
Twitter is where Musk is at his juvenile worst, exhibiting a crassness in stark contrast to the seriousness of geopolitical issues he wades into, along with a truculence that stokes the flames of a troublesome strain of tribalism.
With thousands of employees laid off and many advertisers alienated in the weeks since the deal closed, some wonder if Twitter can survive Elon Musk. Just as critical, though, is whether Musk, and his vision of a multiplanetary civilization, can survive Twitter.
STARLINK AND UKRAINE
It was through Twitter that Musk facilitated critical Starlink connectivity for Ukraine during its war with Russia, responding to a tweet from a Ukrainian government minister shortly after the invasion began. Starlink terminals soon started operating on the front lines, providing essential communications.
“They tweeted at Elon and so we turned it on,” recalled SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in a talk a few weeks after the start of the war, noting the company had been in negotiations with the Ukrainian government for landing rights in the weeks before the war started. “That was our permission. That was the letter from the minister. It was a tweet.”
Starlink in general has been reshaping the perception of satellite broadband from just a technology of last resort to one that can bring high speeds and new capabilities in places that previously had little to no connectivity options.
Building on its early success among fixed consumer households, Starlink is now expanding services for those on the move, including at sea and in the air, where Musk promises internet on planes comparable with speeds back at home for the first time.
A little further out, Musk’s plan to connect Starlink directly to standard smartphones would extend his space empire into consumer pockets — all facilitated by the largest satellite constellation ever deployed.
While there is a ways to go to make a business relying on heavily subsidized antennas economically sustainable, Starlink’s aggressive expansion is rewriting the playbook for a low Earth orbit broadband market littered with bankruptcies and failures.
AN ELASTIC LAUNCH MANIFEST
Starlink has had another effect: creating a finely tuned launch system. The current Starlink generation requires SpaceX to launch Starlink satellites at a dizzying pace to build out the constellation and meet growing demand for its broadband services. Launches, as well as recovery of the Falcon 9 first stages and payload fairings, are now routine. As of Dec. 1, SpaceX had performed 54 launches in 2022; in 2002, the year Musk founded SpaceX, there were only 65 orbital launch attempts worldwide.
SpaceX has demonstrated with this high flight cadence that, in addition to its major customers like NASA and the U.S. Space Force, it can squeeze in additional customers simply by delaying a Starlink launch: an “elastic launch manifest,” in the words of one industry source. That has become increasingly important given the growth of satellite constellations and delays in the introduction of new launch vehicles like the Ariane 6, New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur.
That elasticity allowed SpaceX to ride to the rescue when Russia’s widely condemned invasion of Ukraine took the Soyuz off the launch market, resulting in a series of unusual launch deals for SpaceX. Days after it terminated its Soyuz launch contract in March, OneWeb — a rival to SpaceX’s Starlink — announced it would launch some of its remaining satellites on three Falcon 9 rockets. While OneWeb also bought two launches of India’s GSLV, it had few other options if it wanted to minimize the delay in launching satellites that had been scheduled to launch this year on Soyuz.
OneWeb is not the only unusual customer being rescued by SpaceX. In October, the European Space Agency announced it would launch two missions, the Euclid astrophysics mission and Hera asteroid mission, on Falcon 9. Euclid was originally slated to fly on Soyuz, while Hera was a victim of continued Ariane 6 delays that would have kept it from launching in 2024 as planned.
Two months earlier, Northrop Grumman said it would buy at least three Falcon 9 launches of Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which has long competed with SpaceX’s Dragon to service the International Space Station. Those launches will serve as a stopgap between the retirement of the current version of its Antares rocket, with a Ukrainian first stage and Russian engine, and the introduction of a new version developed with Firefly Aerospace.
But Ukraine also underlines how Musk is not always the benevolent savior his fans make him out to be.
The billionaire threatened to cut off the country’s Starlink lifeline after Ukrainian officials condemned him for putting forward a peace plan, via Twitter, that included ceding territory to their invader. Musk has also made conflicting statements about his willingness to continue funding some Starlink services in Ukraine, even while in negotiations to have the Pentagon support it.
Starlink has come under fire from astronomers, environmentalists and other satellite operators over the sprawling constellation’s impact on the night sky and its potential to create hazardous space junk. While SpaceX has taken steps to address those space sustainability concerns, some remain unconvinced, particularly as SpaceX proposes to grow the constellation from roughly 3,000 today to more than 30,000.
More satellites exacerbate the constellation’s potential for harm, but they also come amid question marks over the speeds Starlink would be capable of without an upgrade as the network gets increasingly congested.
In August, Starlink was denied nearly $900 million in rural broadband subsidies from the FCC after failing to show it could deliver the services it promised nearly 643,000 homes and businesses in the United States. While the FCC said Starlink has real promise, the regulator made a point of not subsidizing technology that needs more development to get up to speed. SpaceX is appealing the decision.
Musk routinely butts heads with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. financial regulator, which fined him $20 million in 2018 for erroneously tweeting he had the funding to take his electric car maker Tesla private for $420 a share.
Musk has also sparred with the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses SpaceX’s launches. The kerfuffles have ranged from complaints about the lengthy environmental review for the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch site to performing a suborbital test flight of Starship there in December 2020 in violation of the terms of its launch license. The FAA let SpaceX off after a brief investigation.
SpaceX is now facing scrutiny from yet another agency. Eight former SpaceX employees filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board Nov. 16, alleging they had been illegally fired by the company in June for organizing activities protected under federal law.
Those activities include circulating an open letter within the company calling on SpaceX to formally distance itself from public comments — including tweets — by Musk. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX—every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company,” they wrote.
Musk is now not just a controversial Twitter user, but also a controversial Twitter owner and chief executive. As he fans the firestorm in his efforts to remake that company, every hour spent there is an hour less that could be spent at SpaceX, where he often had a hands-on presence, particularly with Starship development in Boca Chica. Musk’s private plane last visited the Brownsville, Texas, airport closest to Boca Chica in mid-October, before the Twitter deal closed, according to a service — a Twitter account, of course — that tracks the plane’s flights.
In late November, one person tweeted at Musk a meme showing a person, labeled Musk, lavishing attention on one child in a pool — Twitter — while the other, Tesla, is ignored and struggles to stay afloat. Below them is a skeleton at the bottom of the ocean, labeled “Mars mission.”
“Mars plans are still moving forward,” Musk responded. Many of his supporters no doubt believe him, but others have reason to wonder if his multiplanetary vision is now a little blurry.
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.