Elon Musk used Twitter to speak SpaceX’s ascent because the world’s strongest area firm. What occurs to Musk’s area ambitions now that he owns Twitter?
Nobody influences spaceflight at the moment greater than Elon Musk. SpaceX dominates the launch market with the Falcon 9, whereas Starlink is turning into a significant, even important, satellite tv for pc broadband supplier. Ready within the wings is Starship, a car that guarantees to additional disrupt the launch market whereas additionally delivering astronauts to the lunar floor for the primary time in additional than half a century.
And but, Musk is extra distracted from area than ever. His consideration, lengthy balanced between SpaceX and electrical car producer Tesla, now appears consumed by his newest acquisition, Twitter. Since taking up the social media firm in a quixotic $44 billion acquisition in October, he has been absolutely engaged attempting to remake — or break — the corporate.
Musk has lengthy been each an influence person of Twitter and some of the highly effective individuals to make use of it. It’s his major advertising and marketing channel and a spot the place legions of followers rally behind his lofty ambitions to colonize Mars and cheer his earthy memes.
Twitter is the place Musk is at his juvenile worst, exhibiting a crassness in stark distinction to the seriousness of geopolitical points he wades into, together with a truculence that stokes the flames of a difficult pressure of tribalism.
With hundreds of staff laid off and lots of advertisers alienated within the weeks for the reason that deal closed, some surprise if Twitter can survive Elon Musk. Simply as important, although, is whether or not Musk, and his imaginative and prescient of a multiplanetary civilization, can survive Twitter.
STARLINK AND UKRAINE
It was by means of Twitter that Musk facilitated important Starlink connectivity for Ukraine throughout its struggle with Russia, responding to a tweet from a Ukrainian authorities minister shortly after the invasion started. Starlink terminals quickly began working on the entrance strains, offering important communications.
“They tweeted at Elon and so we turned it on,” recalled SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in a chat just a few weeks after the beginning of the struggle, noting the corporate had been in negotiations with the Ukrainian authorities for touchdown rights within the weeks earlier than the struggle began. “That was our permission. That was the letter from the minister. It was a tweet.”
Starlink usually has been reshaping the notion of satellite tv for pc broadband from only a expertise of final resort to 1 that may carry excessive speeds and new capabilities in locations that beforehand had little to no connectivity choices.
Constructing on its early success amongst fastened client households, Starlink is now increasing providers for these on the transfer, together with at sea and within the air, the place Musk guarantees web on planes comparable with speeds again at residence for the primary time.
A bit additional out, Musk’s plan to attach Starlink immediately to straightforward smartphones would prolong his area empire into client pockets — all facilitated by the biggest satellite tv for pc constellation ever deployed.
Whereas there’s a methods to go to make a enterprise counting on closely backed antennas economically sustainable, Starlink’s aggressive enlargement is rewriting the playbook for a low Earth orbit broadband market affected by bankruptcies and failures.
AN ELASTIC LAUNCH MANIFEST
Starlink has had one other impact: making a finely tuned launch system. The present Starlink era requires SpaceX to launch Starlink satellites at a dizzying tempo to construct out the constellation and meet rising demand for its broadband providers. Launches, in addition to restoration of the Falcon 9 first levels and payload fairings, at the moment are routine. As of Dec. 1, SpaceX had carried out 54 launches in 2022; in 2002, the 12 months Musk based SpaceX, there have been solely 65 orbital launch makes an attempt worldwide.
SpaceX has demonstrated with this excessive flight cadence that, along with its main prospects like NASA and the U.S. Area Power, it will possibly squeeze in further prospects just by delaying a Starlink launch: an “elastic launch manifest,” within the phrases of 1 trade supply. That has change into more and more essential given the expansion of satellite tv for pc constellations and delays within the introduction of recent launch autos just like the Ariane 6, New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur.
That elasticity allowed SpaceX to journey to the rescue when Russia’s broadly condemned invasion of Ukraine took the Soyuz off the launch market, leading to a sequence of surprising launch offers for SpaceX. Days after it terminated its Soyuz launch contract in March, OneWeb — a rival to SpaceX’s Starlink — introduced it could launch a few of its remaining satellites on three Falcon 9 rockets. Whereas OneWeb additionally purchased two launches of India’s GSLV, it had few different choices if it wished to attenuate the delay in launching satellites that had been scheduled to launch this 12 months on Soyuz.
OneWeb shouldn’t be the one uncommon buyer being rescued by SpaceX. In October, the European Area Company introduced it could launch two missions, the Euclid astrophysics mission and Hera asteroid mission, on Falcon 9. Euclid was initially slated to fly on Soyuz, whereas Hera was a sufferer of continued Ariane 6 delays that might have saved it from launching in 2024 as deliberate.
Two months earlier, Northrop Grumman mentioned it could purchase at the least three Falcon 9 launches of Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which has lengthy competed with SpaceX’s Dragon to service the Worldwide Area Station. These launches will function a stopgap between the retirement of the present model of its Antares rocket, with a Ukrainian first stage and Russian engine, and the introduction of a brand new model developed with Firefly Aerospace.
However Ukraine additionally underlines how Musk shouldn’t be all the time the benevolent savior his followers make him out to be.
The billionaire threatened to chop off the nation’s Starlink lifeline after Ukrainian officers condemned him for placing ahead a peace plan, through Twitter, that included ceding territory to their invader. Musk has additionally made conflicting statements about his willingness to proceed funding some Starlink providers in Ukraine, even whereas in negotiations to have the Pentagon help it.
Starlink has come below fireplace from astronomers, environmentalists and different satellite tv for pc operators over the sprawling constellation’s influence on the night time sky and its potential to create hazardous area junk. Whereas SpaceX has taken steps to deal with these area sustainability considerations, some stay unconvinced, significantly as SpaceX proposes to develop the constellation from the roughly 3,000 at the moment to greater than 30,000.
Extra satellites exacerbate the constellation’s potential for hurt, however in addition they come amid query marks over the speeds Starlink could be able to with out an improve because the community will get more and more congested.
In August, Starlink was denied practically $900 million in rural broadband subsidies from the FCC after failing to indicate it may ship the providers it promised practically 643,000 properties and companies in america. Whereas the FCC mentioned Starlink has actual promise, the regulator made some extent of not subsidizing expertise that wants extra growth to stand up to hurry. SpaceX is interesting the choice.
Musk routinely butts heads with the Securities and Change Fee, the U.S. monetary regulator, which fined him $20 million in 2018 for erroneously tweeting he had the funding to take his electrical automotive maker Tesla non-public for $420 a share.
Musk has additionally sparred with the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses SpaceX’s launches. The kerfuffles have ranged from complaints in regards to the prolonged environmental overview for the corporate’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch website to performing a suborbital check flight of Starship there in December 2020 in violation of the phrases of its launch license. The FAA let SpaceX off after a quick investigation.
SpaceX is now dealing with scrutiny from yet one more company. Eight former SpaceX staff filed complaints with the Nationwide Labor Relations Board Nov. 16 alleging they’d been illegally fired by the corporate in June for organizing actions protected below federal legislation.
These actions embrace circulating an open letter throughout the firm calling on SpaceX to formally distance itself from public feedback — together with tweets — by Musk. “As our CEO and most outstanding spokesperson, Elon is seen because the face of SpaceX—each Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public assertion by the corporate,” they wrote.
Musk is not only a controversial Twitter person, but in addition a controversial Twitter proprietor and chief govt. As he followers the firestorm in his efforts to remake that firm, each hour spent there may be an hour much less that might be spent at SpaceX, the place he typically had a hands-on presence, significantly with Starship growth in Boca Chica. Musk’s non-public aircraft final visited the Brownsville, Texas, airport closest to Boca Chica in mid-October, earlier than the Twitter deal closed, in line with a service — a Twitter account, in fact — that tracks the aircraft’s flights.
In late November, one particular person tweeted at Musk a meme exhibiting an individual, labeled Musk, lavishing consideration on one baby in a pool — Twitter — whereas the opposite, Tesla, is ignored and struggles to remain afloat. Under them is a skeleton on the backside of the ocean, labeled “Mars mission.”
“Mars plans are nonetheless transferring ahead,” Musk responded. Lots of his supporters little question consider him, however others have motive to surprise if his multiplanetary imaginative and prescient is now just a little blurry.
This text initially appeared within the December 2022 problem of SpaceNews journal.