Remember the days of high school and the social hierarchy of the lunchroom that was a part of everyday life? It was a pecking order that could vary depending on the school, but at the top of this social construct was what is known as the “cool kids table.”
Modern-day Washington, D.C. is a lot like the high school cafeteria. Everyone is jockeying to be one of these so-called cool kids. Instead of lunchroom table placement, some people in our nation’s capital strive to get invited to the right parties, be seen on TV, make print headlines and be associated with the certain “cool kids.”
As the saying goes, “It isn’t what you know, but who you know.”
The “who” in this equation isn’t of Washington, D.C., but of Los Angeles’ chic Bel Air neighborhood. SpaceX’s Elon Musk is that guy.
The Cool Kid
Musk made a name for himself for his roles in creating Zip2, PayPal, Solar City, Tesla Motors and SpaceX. He has also capitalized on this DC social status. According to a 2015 Los Angeles Times article, Musk has been the beneficiary of billions of dollars in government subsidies to aid in the development and manufacturing of the necessities for a cleaner and greener future — solar panels, batteries, electric cars, etc.
In 2002, Musk added space transit to his portfolio of ventures with the launch of SpaceX. And much like many of his other undertakings, he has leaned heavily on the federal government to finance his space exploits.
Sixteen years since launching SpaceX, Musk is making a play to take some of the federal government’s business away from other manufacturers, including Decatur, Ala.-based rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance (ULA).
Playing the Washington Game
Musk has convinced some in Washington that the product ULA offers is too expensive and that his SpaceX is a company that can do it much cheaper. One who has bought into Musk and what he is trying sell is Senate Armed Service Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
As Todd Stacy pointed out in a piece for Alabama News Daily earlier this week, despite McCain’s absence to receive treatment for brain cancer, many of his staffers remain involved in the process and are working to ensure language is in the National Defense Authorization Act that would favor SpaceX.
McCain is not the only member of Congress that Musk has won over on SpaceX. Unlike many of his current-day Silicon Valley counterparts, the billionaire entrepreneur has been bipartisan with his campaign contributions, as shown by the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org.
On the Democratic side, Musk has invested his campaign dollars all around, especially in ideologues that profess a liberal point-of-view. However, on the Republican side, he has conspicuously been more targetted with his money.
Musk has given to members that could help with his business ventures, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), former chairman of the House Science Committee’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, and as mentioned earlier, John McCain.
Still waiting on SpaceX to live up to expectations
While Musk is being judicious with money and placing bets where it benefits his interests, Musk’s SpaceX is a risky bet.
Part of SpaceX’s plan to offer launches at a lower cost involves reusing rockets. That’s not exactly a new concept, but given the wear and tear of a launch getting multiples uses from a payload to space could be costly in the long run, and that is cause for skepticism.
Musk has staked his claim on this idea, going back as far as 2007. More than a decade later, the federal government has invested at least $3.5 billion in Musk’s SpaceX according to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.
Moreover, the Falcon 9, the rocket used by SpaceX for much of its government work and touted as cost-effective because Musk had claimed it could be relaunched 10 to 20 times has only been reused once to date.
While SpaceX has had some success, there have also been some spectacular crashes.
For those reasons, SpaceX is not just a threat to taxpayer dollars but public safety as well — as pointed out by a NASA watchdog group last month.
The Coming Fight
As the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is making its way through the Senate, there’s an effort underway to give SpaceX an edge over ULA.
Language buried deep within one of the drafts of the NDAA that the Senate is considering would shift who at the Pentagon is the vanguard on U.S. space policy. Currently, former NASA administrator Mike Griffin is one of the Pentagon’s top officials that holds a critical post. In the past, Griffin has recognized the risk that SpaceX poses and has preferred ULA.
The NDAA language would strip Griffin’s post of these duties and give them to the Pentagon’s Chief Management Officer, a position currently held by John H. “Jay” Gibson II.
Gibson, as ADN’s Stacy has also pointed out, is a critic of Boeing and Lockheed Martin and could hold a grudge against ULA because it didn’t select his former company XCOR for an engine development contract.
ULA: 100 Percent Success Rate Backed by Alabamians
On the other hand, Decatur’s ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has been a reliable and steady hand in America’s space endeavors of the new millennium. It has a track record beginning in 2006 with more than 120 consecutive launches, a 100 percent mission success rate and has placed $70 billion of assets in orbit over the Earth.
For Alabama, ULA has employed more than 600 and last year had an estimated economic impact of $285 million on the state.
For those reasons, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa) made it a priority to protect ULA’s Alabama presence. In 2016, Shelby thwarted an effort by McCain to undermine ULA.
On Tuesday, Shelby reiterated his support for ULA.
“I continue to support fair and transparent competition at the Department of Defense and NASA,” Shelby said in a statement to Yellowhammer News. “United Launch Alliance has an outstanding reliability record of 128 consecutive launches without a failure, and that record speaks for itself.”
@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and is the editor of Breitbart TV.
Correction: This article identified Mike Griffin as NASA administrator. He is the former NASA administrator. It has been corrected to reflect this.