Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Social media in space, the hunt for dark vessels, and Artemis vs. Nicole.
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Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover has seen the serial entrepreneur lay off thousands of employees, disappoint advertisers, confuse users, and announce a variety of sometimes contradictory product changes.
For space fans, it can be disconcerting, and not just because the stress on Musk’s personal fortune and attention is likely to cost SpaceX. If you (like me) have ever told anyone that SpaceX is a pretty amazing company that does some incredible things, Musk’s very public meltdown imposes some cognitive dissonance.
What, then, is Musk doing differently at Twitter than he has at SpaceX, his most successful firm? His demands for excessive hours and callous approach to firings haven’t changed, that’s for sure.
The answer lies in corporate strategy. SpaceX emerged from Musk’s post-PayPal interest in launching some kind of stunt mission to Mars with his newfound wealth. But he discovered that tens of millions of dollars was not enough money to buy even the cheapest rocket. He also found aerospace engineers—not top executives, but people managing development programs—and learned about their pain points, and what they thought would work if someone just tried it.
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This helped SpaceX develop a customer-focused strategy: More than anything, people who bought rockets wanted to pay less. The engineers told him how to do it: Let’s stop relying on the moribund aerospace supply chain and buy new tech off the shelf. Let’s push toward mass production. Let’s take a look at this old NASA program to develop a reusable rocket—what if we did that?
At Twitter, much has been made about Musk being the first member of the management team to actually use/be addicted to the platform. This drives his attention toward “free speech” and spam bots. The problem here is that Twitter’s users aren’t the customers. Twitter’s advertisers are the customers, and Musk famously doesn’t spend much money on advertising at any of his companies. Thus far, advertisers don’t like what they’re seeing. Even when satellite companies were skeptical of SpaceX, they made no secret that they liked the idea of cheap rockets.
Now, it’s possible that Musk believes he can pivot Twitter so that users are its customers; it’s clear he wants to get more revenue from them, and that’s a sensible proposition. But 90% of Twitter’s revenue in 2021, some $4.5 billion, came from advertising. If the estimated 400,000 verified users all pay $96 a year for the privilege, Musk will gain $38 million in revenue. Meanwhile, the money-losing company will also need to pay about $1 billion in new annual debt service. It’s hard to make the math for such a pivot work, which is why Musk is musing about adding payments and high-interest savings accounts to the mix.
The other theme of the Musk discourse is engineering—his leadership will improve Twitter’s functionality, adding new and long-desired features to the platform. This is believable, but I’m not convinced that it’s the key to making the company profitable. SpaceX and Tesla are companies that make physical products with reliable capabilities. Twitter, on the other hand, produces an experience and convenes a community. As this article lays out in compelling fashion, that requires soft skills and tough choices about policy, not applying the most powerful machine learning.
There’s another difference: Delegation and hiring. At SpaceX, Musk brought onboard people with aerospace experience and let them work. Gwynne Shotwell sold the rockets, Tom Mueller built the engines, Hans Koenigsmann became the chief engineer. At Twitter, the people he’s reportedly relying on are venture capitalists like Jason Calcanis and David Sacks, or the manager of his personal investments, Jared Birchall. Capable folks, no doubt—who have never operated a social media platform. That might be why Chris Sacca, a Facebook veteran and venture capitalist, publicly worried that Musk is surrounded by yes-men.
Musk’s adventure with Twitter is just beginning, however, and there’s one other thing to keep in mind about him: He’s good at following the money, and Twitter’s financial situation might discipline him. At SpaceX, he figured out how to get government agencies, private companies, and billionaires to invest in things they wanted (cheap space access, thrill rides to orbit) that enable what he wants (the technology to go to Mars). He might do the same at Twitter—if what he wants is a better place for people to communicate, and not to be the center of attention.
Satellites have tracked beacons onboard cargo ships using the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Now, they are fine-tuning their sensors to spot ships that have shut off or spoofed those beacons—“dark vessels”. The graphic below shows a cargo ship that sent out a fake course, while actually heading to Venezuela. Learn how it was spotted, and what else this technology can do.
Artemis vs. Nicole. NASA has moved the first test launch of its Moon rocket to Nov. 16 due to Tropical Storm Nicole approaching Florida. The $4.1 billion rocket will wait out the weather on the launch pad; fingers crossed it makes it through ok.
Astra cuts jobs. The publicly traded rocket maker is laying off 16% of its staff; the company announced a pivot to a “Launch System 2" after its first vehicles failed to reliably deliver payloads to orbit.
A hot new business opportunity. Canopy Aerospace has emerged from an incubator with plans to streamline the production of thermal protection tiles that protect spacecraft entering Earth’s atmosphere. The firm stands to benefit from the increased emphasis on vehicles bringing back samples, people, and perhaps goods from space.
Space Policy Action. A UN committee endorsed plans for a moratorium on dangerous tests of anti-satellite weapons, while the US Federal Communications Commission, which oversees American satellites, is plotting a dedicated space bureau.
Power in space, I. The International Space Station will have its electrical system upgraded over the course of three upcoming space walks.
Power in space, II. The European Space Agency is proposing a program called Solaris to study beaming solar power from space to Earth.
This was issue 158 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your Twitter feature wishlist, updates on the global panopticon, tips, and informed opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org.