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: The Musk Files, Artemis is #1, and UAE is the new Russia.
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Back in the day when NASA was betting millions that a California start-up could fly cargo to the International Space Station on the cheap, they made Elon Musk get “key man” insurance. The space agency worried that without Musk’s capital and commitment, the project would fail, and they’d need financial compensation.
A dozen years later, NASA is more reliant on SpaceX than ever. And Musk? Well, reporters asked NASA chief Bill Nelson about his confidence in the serial entrepreneur following the return of the Artemis 1 moon mission this week. Nelson needs SpaceX to deliver its Starship vehicle if he wants a shot at putting astronauts on the lunar surface by the end of the decade.
“I saw [SpaceX president] Gwynne Shotwell in DC this past weekend,” Nelson replied. “I said to Gwynne, ‘Tell me your opinion if Twitter is going to be a distraction in any way affecting SpaceX.’ And she said to me in no uncertain terms, ‘I assure you it is not.’ As you know she has been designated as the person to lead SpaceX. So I take it straight from, what we in the South say, the horse’s mouth. And she’s the horse that’s running SpaceX.”
Shotwell’s promotion to the horse running SpaceX isn’t exactly news; she’s been central to the company’s success for years now, allowing Musk to focus more on the overarching vision and kibitzing with his rocket engineers. But it’s something of a sea change for someone like Nelson to say publicly that they’re counting on SpaceX to succeed regardless of Musk.
We’ve closely covered Musk’s decision to buy Twitter, noting that he’s not deploying the same strategic focus we saw in SpaceX’s early days. And we’ve observed that the biggest threat to SpaceX will be if Musk’s other ventures impact his ability to keep raising capital to fund the mammoth cost of his most ambitious space projects, from Starlink to Starship.
I didn’t anticipate, however, the latest from the New York Times, which reports that SpaceX’s legal team has parachuted into Twitter. Tim Hughes, the company’s general counsel and long-time fixer in Washington, Chris Cardaci, SpaceX’s vice president of legal, and other company attorneys are apparently tackling the problems arising at the social media platform after Musk’s chaotic takeover.
Does it matter if a few lawyers from one private company spend a few weeks working at another private company? That may depend on whether you buy into Musk’s “hardcore” management style of “working long hours at a high intensity.” There’s only so many hours in a day, after all, and divided attention is divided attention.
All of this is particularly relevant after the successful return of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission this week. The biggest obstacle in front of America’s next Moon landing is getting SpaceX’s Starship ready to put the first woman on the lunar surface. Starship is still pushing through engine tests on the ground, but agency officials expected to see a test flight this month—and that will require a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. SpaceX’s lawyers interface with the agency, which this summer gave the company a laundry list of things to do before it would grant a launch license. The FAA tells Quartz that it will make a decision “only after the agency is satisfied SpaceX meets all licensing, safety and other regulatory requirements,” with reviews of factors including potential payloads, safety, airspace integration, financial responsibility and environmental impact on-going. (That’s not
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that SpaceX is being valued at $140 billion—about $28 billion more than today’s market value for Boeing—for the purposes of an insider stock sale that is not expected to be a capital raise. This tender is likely one of the regular liquidity events that allow SpaceX employees to cash in their stock options. But alongside reports that Musk is considering replacing some of the high-interest debt at Twitter with loans against his Tesla shares, it’s possibly an attempt by Musk to raise more cash. Tesla’s stock price, meanwhile, has plummeted over the course of the year, raising questions about Musk’s ability to maintain control over the company.
Put another way: It’s been a while since Walter Isaacson, Musk’s own James Boswell, has tweeted about how good Musk is at multi-tasking.
Predictions are a mug’s game, but Musk’s empire is probably in its most precarious position since the annus horribilis of 2008, when SpaceX was struggling to launch its first rocket and Tesla teetered on bankruptcy.
But until another firm can out-execute Musk’s rocket company, speculation about SpaceX’s future will be purely academic. Its ostensible rivals, from Blue Origin to Boeing, have yet to deliver as consistently or cheaply. NASA and the Pentagon would love to another credible (and affordable) bidder for everything from launch vehicles to Moon landers. Will 2023 be the year that changes?
What are you most excited about in space for 2023? What are you most worried about? Space Business readers, make your voice heard and help me prep for another big year of extraterrestrial activity.
One last Artemis 1 shot for the road—a look at the Orion capsule being recovered after its fiery return to Earth. Compare it to last week’s image of the capsule in flight for an object lesson in the stresses of reentry.
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Artemis 1 got it done. The first flight of the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft concluded successfully over the weekend. It’s a major milestone that tees up the US lunar return, with the next step coming with Artemis II, a crewed lap around the Moon that could happen in 2024. By the way: Yesterday, we marked the 50th anniversary of the last crewed mission to our nearest astronomical neighbor.
Planet has a good quarter. The space data firm reported quarterly earnings yesterday that exceeded expectations, with revenue growing 57% year over year. The company says it expects to meet the full-year revenue goals it set ahead of its SPAC debut in 2021, a rarity for companies going public that way. Planet also announced the acquisition of Salo Sciences, a company that uses satellite data to monitor forests and other ecosystems.
Another investment in lunar infrastructure. Quantum Space raised $15 million from Prime Movers Lab to build spacecraft that aim to provide communications, navigation, and other services in the space between the Earth and the Moon. Quantum was founded by Kam Ghaffarian, a serial space entrepreneur who is also behind Axiom Space and Intuitive Machines, and led by former NASA executive Steve Jurczyk.
UAE eyes Russia’s role on Lunar Gateway. The Middle Eastern kingdom is in talks to build an airlock for a planned international space station in orbit around the Moon, part of a broad investment in space activities. The UAE could replace Russia’s role in building the station as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine continues to harm civil space cooperation.
China’s space station will host a Swiss science project. Researchers at the University of Geneva will work with China’s space agency to conduct an experiment in low-earth orbit. The decision highlights the new competition faced by the International Space Station as a global destination for space science.
Here comes SWOT. SpaceX is expected to launch the Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite today. The much-anticipated NASA observatory will collect data about the water bodies of the world that will help understand how they absorb heat and what that might mean for climate change.
Space Diplomacy updates. The United Nations approved a resolution against destructive tests of anti-satellite weapons in a symbolic win for the US political agenda in space. And US officials are mulling ways to increase engagement between China and the US to promote space safety.
This was issue 162 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your predictions for 2023 in space, schemes for US-China orbital rapprochement, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.