Business

Space Tesla

Tesla is having trouble making cars — despite the billions in subsidies, despite a fawning press that never calls out the company on its serial broken promises. Including, most recently, its promise that it would have 1,500 of its new Model 3 “mass market” electric cars ready for delivery by the end of September.

As of late October, only about 260 had been cobbled together. Cue the excuses.

Tesla
Blomst / Pixabay

Maybe it’s not such a good idea to give Elon Musk’s other business — SpaceX — a monopoly on providing heavy-lift rockets to the government. Especially given the sketchy record of Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket, Musk’s excuse-making and conspiracy-mongering — including wild-eyes intimations that a launch failure last October (destroying a Facebook satellite in the process) might have been caused by sabotage.

Specifically, a sniper who “took out” the rocket — not from behind the grassy knoll but from the rooftop of a building more than a mile away.

Yes, really.

“Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation,” Musk tweeted the day after the fiery explosion on the pad. “Engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source. Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off. May come from rocket or something else.”

This is typical Musk blame-shifting. Of a piece with the failure of his Tesla electric car operation to meet the promised September production figures for the Model 3. Musk excels at making bold promises — and making a buck off the government.

But how often does he actually deliver?

Which is why language in the pending National Defense Authorization Agreement (NDAA) is raising eyebrows.

As written, Section 1615 of the NDAA would bar the government from seeking the development of new launch systems — that is, of new rocket engines — as alternatives to those already “certified.” This legalese effectively grants SpaceX a monopoly because the only other “certified” contenders for the government’s business are United Launch Systems’ Atlas V, which uses the RD-180 liquid fuel rocket engine — Russian-designed engines — descended from engines (the RD-170) designed for use in the Soviet Buran space shuttle and the Energia launch vehicles — and the aging, being-phased-out Delta IV system.

The RD-180 engines have been popular, used to power American rockets since the early 2000s, because they are powerful and reliable. But they are also politically problematic. Particularly now.

It is more than slightly embarrassing that the United States has been using Soviet (and Soviet-era) technology to lift American satellites into orbit. Also, political tensions have been increasing between the United States and Russia — with the Russian government threatening supply interruptions in retaliation for U.S. policies toward Russia.

American alternatives would be good; free competition for the contracts even better.

But Section 1615 would effectively prohibit alternatives by requiring the use of existing and “certified” launch vehicles only. Since the Russian-derived Atlas RD-180 is out — Congress passed a ban on its further use beginning in 2022 — and the only other available system is the aging-out Delta IV — that leaves (drum roll) the Falcon 9, Musk’s rocket.

Which would then be the only rocket — lining Musk’s pockets accordingly.

Insulated from competition — and with his system effectively granted a monopoly — Musk could charge pretty much whatever he likes for his rockets. It’s a business model very similar to his electric car company’s business model, which is a crony capitalist business model, whose profits depend on captive markets, subsidies and rent-seeking.

But while the carbon credits scam and the electric car production quotas that benefit Tesla are firmly entrenched, there is still time to prevent SpaceX from becoming — and the irony here is striking — the American version of the state-sponsored Soviet rocket engine program.

The House Armed Services Committee began deliberating the NDAA this week and will be making adjustments — which could and should include striking the Section 1615 language and replacing it, if necessary, with a provision that says the government is free to select whatever rocket system (and engines) are the best deal for taxpayers, rather than for Elon Musk.

A decision is expected soon, possibly within days.

As Ron Paul told Fox News a few weeks ago: “Allowing SpaceX to obtain a monopoly over launch services harms taxpayers much more than forbidding the Pentagon from purchasing Russian products harms Vladimir Putin.”

Ranking HASC member Rep. Adam Smith of Washington has also openly criticized Section 1615, writing in a “Dear Colleague” letter to other HASC committee members earlier this month that the clause “will result in higher costs for the taxpayer and risks delays in ending use of the RD-180 engine.”

Exactly so.

It’s what happens when competition is gimped by crony capitalism. If the Falcon 9 wins on the merits, then good for Musk — because it’s good for taxpayers. But if his rockets aren’t the best buy, then the government — the taxpayer — shouldn’t be forced to by them, either.

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