You might imagine that pro-capitalism, free-market folk like me would just love what Elon Musk has done in the past couple of decades but you’d be wrong. I enjoy his entrepreneurial spirit and success, founding company (zip2) after company (PayPal) after company (The Boring Co.) and turning them into properties worth billions and then moving along to the next new thing. Props and kudos to this son of South Africa and prototype for “Iron Man.” You got those parts right.
As a gadget-loving geek and someone who stayed home one whole summer vacation day to watch men walk on the moon, I can’t deny that the concept of SpaceX is genius. For as much as NASA got right in blazing a trail past Earth’s orbit, at the end of the day it’s still a government bureaucracy with all the baggage that goes with it. Then came Mr. Musk, who at first seemed like the Robert Heinlein (still my favorite fiction author) character Delos D. Harriman brought to life — bringing private enterprise and capitalism to the space program. Bravo!
But not so fast. While Mr. Heinlein’s Harriman boasts he will “cheat, lie, steal, beg, bribe — do anything” to keep governments from owning the moon, Mr. Musk seeks space travel to tap into one of the oldest and most corrupt technologies around. He wants access to those government presses that print money (and puts the American people deeply into debt). Let’s just call that the world’s second-oldest profession.
The latest estimates put Mr. Musk’s net worth at just a bit more than $19 billion. I would find that admirable if I didn’t take into account billions from government which made it possible. I want entrepreneurs to take risks but not with the taxpayers’ money. The LA Times figures almost $5 billion of that Musk money came from subsidies of Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX. Tesla has thus far failed to perform up to its founder’s promises. SolarCity only pencils out if paid from the Treasury. Which brings me to SpaceX with its own history of failure.
Now, Elon Musk just recently received more than a quarter of a billion taxpayer bucks for a new space venture; only this isn’t something as relatively unimportant as generating juice from your roof or a cool road coupe. This time it’s a national security venture launching satellites for the U.S. military. And SpaceX hasn’t had much luck in that area lately.
Let’s examine some recent history.
June 28, 2015: A strut made by SpaceX to withstand 10,000 pounds of force folded up at a fifth of that and the Falcon 9 launch exploded in a ball of flame. Loss: 4 thousand pounds of food and supplies bound for the international space station. A government post-mortem blamed poor quality control at SpaceX.
Sept. 1, 2016: A launch intended to supply Facebook with better communications across Africa blew up on the pad at Cape Canaveral during testing. Loss: A $200 million satellite and the $60 million Falcon 9.
And then this year: The billion-dollar Zuma satellite launched in early January failed. No one knows at this point what caused this latest failure. Some experts believe the payload adapter malfunctioned, others point fingers at SpaceX — but the taxpayers are out at least a one with nine zeroes and that’s never a good thing.
I see the future of space travel and commercialization of space in the private sector. Government lacks the courage and the chutzpah to make the kind of leaps we need. But it also should be done by private organizations with private risk capital, not a single company that’s simply figured out how to tap the taxpayers who carry all the risk while a single billionaire collects the rewards and the huzzahs.
• Lars Larson is the host of the nationally-syndicated Lars Larson Show
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