Did Elon Musk really lose $80 million helping Ukraine?

The math doesn't add up for Musk's claims about SpaceX's Starlink satellite network in Ukraine
Elon Musk doing satellite math. 
Elon Musk doing satellite math. 
Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Elon Musk, in the midst of some amateur geopoliticking, made an interesting claim: The serial entrepreneur said his company lost more than $80 million helping connect Ukrainians to the internet in the midst of a Russian invasion.

That number doesn’t jibe with what we know about Starlink, the satellite network SpaceX has built to deliver broadband from orbit, or its experience in Ukraine. Either Starlink is playing a much larger role in the conflict than expected, burning more cash than we know, or Musk is exaggerating his company’s contribution.

SpaceX did not respond to questions about the figure.

So what’s going on with Starlink in Ukraine?

Here’s what we know: USAID, the American international development agency, said in April that it delivered 5,000 user terminals to Ukraine. (There’s some controversy here; USAID originally said it purchased the terminals but then edited its press release, and won’t respond to inquiries about what happened.) Other reports suggest that European countries have paid for terminals as well.

Let’s say there are 20,000 terminals in Ukraine. Each terminal costs about $1,500 to manufacture, according to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. Starlink service costs customers $100 a month in the US, though one crowd-sourced database suggests Ukrainians might be paying closer to $60 a month.

That suggests the terminals cost $30 million, and for eight months of service, $16 million, or $46 million total, assuming that SpaceX didn’t have costs covered by the US or Ukraine.

So where does $80 million come from? It’s possible that there are many more terminals in Ukraine than we know of, but that’s relatively unlikely because simulations and reports on the ground suggest the Starlink network doesn’t have a ton of capacity there. Another possibility is that SpaceX’s subsidy of the terminals and service across the board is significantly more than the company has revealed, and it is taking significantly higher operating losses. Musk did note later that Starlink is “far from cash flow positive.”

Or it’s possible that SpaceX has invested more in ground-based infrastructure in Ukraine or nearby countries in eastern Europe. Starlink generally needs ground stations to connect users to the internet via its satellite network. To add capacity in Ukraine, SpaceX could have accelerated investments in eastern European ground stations. On the other hand, the company likely planned those investments in any case.

Then again, it’s possible that Musk just needed a round number that sounded good.

Correction: The math in this piece has been fixed to report a total cost of $46 million, not $32 million.