Opinion

Is SpaceX Attempting to Cash In on Its Political Influence?

SpaceX is an amazing company that has kept the United States competitive in aerospace since the retirement of U.S. space shuttles in 2011. Its chairman, Elon Musk, is a visionary who, through philanthropic actions — such as opening all patents of Tesla to public domain if they were to be used to benefit humanity — is revolutionizing both business theory and ethics. But even with a philanthropist at the helm, SpaceX is far from perfect. Recently, the company has attempted to gain political influence in Washington and is now seeking to cash in on its investment. This behavior cannot be tolerated.

​In the 2016 election cycle, SpaceX (via its associated PAC) donated $274,750 to political candidates around the country. That’s more than enough for members of Congress to take notice. And whereas most organizations contribute money to a single party (Planned Parenthood, for example, donated more than 90 percent of its contributions to Democrats and liberal “soft organizations”), SpaceX prefers to hedge its bets by balancing its contributions between parties, with approximately 57 percent of its money going to Republicans and 43 percent to Democrats. As a result, SpaceX’s political influence tends to be much more bipartisan in nature.

​This bipartisanship may come especially in handy when dealing with relatively apolitical issues, like aerospace and national security. Case in point: the Air Force’s Launch Services Agreement. The purpose of the Launch Services Agreement is to utilize domestically developed, commercial rockets to support American national security missions and reduce the United States’ reliance on foreign technology. The LSA program is divided into two phases, with the first phase focusing on selecting various aerospace contractors to produce rocket prototypes to be used in future missions.

In October 2018, Phase 1 concluded with the Air Force awarding grants to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance. SpaceX, once considered by some to be the heavy favorite, was left out of the first phase entirely. While SpaceX’s exclusion left many angered by the Air Force’s decision, there is no shame in admitting that SpaceX just wasn’t right for that job. It’s not like SpaceX is a lemon; it has received more than its fair share of aerospace contracts. In February 2019, the Air Force awarded SpaceX part of a $739 million launch contract. The LSA, however, is a different story. It requires that awardees build launch prototypes capable of hauling the heaviest payloads — called Category C missions — as well as the medium and intermediate-class payloads. The Air Force likely concluded that SpaceX — which utilizes a low-cost business model but has struggled with reliability — just wasn’t the right fit for the mission parameters, and decided to move forward with other highly qualified candidates.

In February, the Air Force announced that it would be moving into Phase 2, in which the Air Force would designate two aerospace contractors to compete to fulfill national security contracts. Although SpaceX did not secure a contract in Phase 1, it still has the option to compete in the second phase. Indeed, SpaceX’s inability to obtain a Phase 1 contract just means that it will have to “bear the brunt” of the cost to compete without government funding.

​Nevertheless, SpaceX didn’t accept the Air Force’s decision to award its competitors with Phase 1 contracts. Instead, the aerospace company set out to change that outcome legislatively. Not long after the winners of Phase 1 were announced, SpaceX launched a lobbying effort which sought to cash in on the influence it had strategically purchased.

On February 4, 2019, SpaceX’s political investments began to bear fruit. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) wrote a letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, stating that the Air Force’s selection process was unjust and created an unfair playing field. While not once mentioning SpaceX by name, the letter presented numerous concerns for the companies that were excluded from the selection process and attempted to cast doubt on the process through which the contractors were selected. Unsurprisingly, both Feinstein and Calvert were recipients of SpaceX’s generous campaign contributions. Feinstein received $2,000 directly from the SpaceX’s PAC to her campaign, and Calvert received $5,000.

It’s possible that SpaceX is attempting to call in a political favor, using legislators to attack the Air Force’s decision-making, questioning the LSA program’s efficacy, and call for an independent review of the entire process. But SpaceX’s attempts to weaken the Air Force’s standards and requirements only serve to harm America’s aerospace potential. Ultimately, SpaceX’s lobbying efforts are standing in the way of progress, preventing those we charge with securing our nation from doing their jobs effectively. SpaceX’s actions are harmful, not just to the LSA program and aerospace endeavors, but also to the nation’s national security agenda.

National security is too important to allow political gamesmanship to interfere with America’s interests. As such, America must resist any and all politically-motivated efforts to undermine the Air Force’s authority over the Launch Services Agreement. As Feinstein told the students about the Green New Deal, she has been in Washington a long time, except in this case it means that she should know better than to allow the political lobbying of the swamp to interfere with national security.

 

Remi Alli, JD, MS, a freelancer, has worked for publications such as Forbes and Investopedia, and in her work with Brāv, the premier online platform to manage conflicts (www.brav.org), has been featured in such journals including U.S. News and World Report, MONEY, Time, The Huffington Post and Yahoo.

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