Elon Musk’s gregarious energy comes with a jet-pack.
As CEO of SpaceX, a company he started in 2002 after co-founding PayPal, Musk has attracted multiple challengers as he uses the high-flying company to challenge the biggest challenges in spaceflight.
But in Virginia, where SpaceX assembles rockets in its McGregor, Virginia, facility, Musk’s eyes shine brightly. The company seems to feel that having a rocket in South Hampton Roads, just outside Newport News, is a blessing. In a mid-afternoon phone interview, Musk told the editor of Virginian-Pilot he wanted the region to be able to use the giant launchpad for whatever it needs. “We’ve seen people wanting to build rockets and destroying them in testing,” Musk said. “We want this one to be used for good.”
On Tuesday, Musk returned to his roots. It’s one of the first days of SpaceX’s sale of stock to employees. A computer company that was bought by Tesla, Musk had floated the idea of the stock sales in January 2018 and then, amid the chaos in Washington, begged for help from Congress.
The idea: Tesla’s manufacturing system could be taught how to make rockets. Then, when needed, SpaceX could launch new rockets more quickly.
Musk drew up a test plan — or “competition brief,” as he affectionately referred to it — and brought it to Congress. Before it was done, the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, NASA JSC’s Caroline Rolfe, whom Musk called “a big family person,” had asked Musk to send her the opening “competition brief.” Soon, NASA invited Musk to testify.
On Tuesday, Musk’s optimism was rare in Silicon Valley.
The United States, he reminded Congress, recently punched above its weight in space — hitting 20 percent of the global market share, out of an entire market that Russia, China and Europe together control more than 80 percent.
Yet there is concern that there is little the space agency can do to influence the sale of this rocket stock. While Musk’s track record is well-known, there are serious questions about whether he is qualified to run a rocket firm. Congress grappled with the issue in August, when an independent panel, hired by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said Musk’s skill level as a director, president or CEO was “legally unproven.”
“Our hope was it was going to be great,” Sibley Carter, an engineer at SpaceX’s McGregor facility who was on the panel, said of Tuesday’s stock sale. “It turned out it wasn’t. There is no trust between SpaceX and Virginia.”
Carter said there is a new risk in making Musk a part of the U.S. space program. People are investing in Musk for his company, but “they are putting all their bets on a guy that has proven his ability to blow things up,” he said. “When you have this position in the space program, how do you keep from siding with the competitors?”
The committee, chaired by GOP Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, will vote on the report in the coming weeks, according to committee spokeswoman Brooke Freifeld.
Carter and other engineers and employees of the shuttles and Space Shuttle program, which NASA is now no longer pursuing, have been vocal that they feel that, while SpaceX has had more than 3,000 flight-test flights, and during its string of 18 successful rocket launches in the past year, it is not close to what they were able to achieve. SpaceX’s rocket has two stages — one used to launch the satellite and the other for reusability, such as after the rocket bounces off a satellite. The team at NASA’s complex, run by the Space Center of Virginia, was in “record-breaking operation in every way,” according to Carter. For the public, this meant humans were launching satellites, U.S. satellites, to orbit, with just 2 percent of the rocket fuel spent. “If SpaceX were to get a huge return on investment, they would be NASA,” Carter said.
Elon Musk, answering the same questions he would answer at a Congressional hearing, suggested that SpaceX is clearly not far away from what NASA was able to do more than a decade ago, but that he would like to look over the military documents NASA used at the time. He also said that he is