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Elon Musk Wants to Move Fast and Break Space

SpaceX’s Starlink project would add thousands of satellites to a very crowded sky.

Elon Musk smiles, points a finger upwards
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Late last month, a pair of satellites operated by Starlink and OneWeb—two companies working to launch constellations of small, low-orbiting satellites that beam internet access all over Earth—almost collided, passing within nearly 200 feet of one another. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, this was only the latest near miss: In late 2019, a Starlink satellite passed dangerously close to a European Union weather satellite. Apparently, the EU took the potential collision a lot more seriously than Starlink, which is part of SpaceX, the rocketry firm in Elon Musk’s growing business portfolio. “The agency said it was only able to contact Starlink via email, and the company told it they would take no action, so EU engineers had to initiate a collision avoidance maneuver,” according to the Journal.

Space is getting crowded, and experts worry that we might one day face a catastrophic cascade of proliferating space debris, which could in turn knock out satellites, disable GPS service, and generally render space travel and global communications impossible for a generation. “In orbit, a one-centimetre bolt can have the explosive force of a hand grenade upon impact,” noted The New Yorker. While there’s blame to go around—along with a few nascent efforts by governments and NGOs to do something about the problematic buildup of space debris—the latest set of concerns revolves around constellations of low-orbiting satellites that companies like SpaceX are launching in order to provide global broadband internet access.

The potential payoff, for customers in difficult-to-reach areas and the corporate tycoons managing these projects, is huge. By some estimates, up to 40 percent of the world’s population lacks internet access. Due to geography, conflict, disinvestment, or poverty, many people remain cut off from existing broadband and wireless networks; satellite internet access could potentially work anywhere—even in moving vehicles, claims Musk. SpaceX has said that satellite internet access is a potentially $1 trillion market. According to Morgan Stanley, if its satellite constellation succeeds, SpaceX’s value could soar to $175 billion. (Wide-eyed analysts speak of Amazon adding four billion customers through its own satellite network.) What we have here is, once again, a public good being distorted through the lens of private industry. And there’s real money to be made.

But a growing list of skeptics—some, admittedly, from companies that seek to launch their own competing satellites—is worried that companies like SpaceX are putting up too many satellites too quickly. Other critics say that Starlink satellites risk blocking the view of telescopes, or that the company’s privatization of space-based communications will undermine public connectivity projects. The situation resembles a real estate grab, with competing firms racing to claim as much of space as they possibly can—before governments can apportion rights or coordinate with industry on how to keep an increasingly crowded sky full of functioning satellites.

So far, no company has been as aggressive in colonizing space as SpaceX. Benefiting from its growing role as the U.S. government’s preferred rocketry firm, SpaceX exhibits a Zuckerbergian “move fast and break things” approach, brushing off the problem of exploding rockets and even tolerating an initial failure rate for its Starlink satellites as high as 5 percent. When a satellite doesn’t work, the company simply deorbits it, bringing it back toward Earth, where it burns up in the atmosphere. Starlink’s overall failure rate has more recently declined to somewhere in the realm of 3 percent—not bad by industry standards, but when thousands of satellites are deployed, that can add up to a lot of junk and a lot of systemic risk. As one industry observer told Forbes, with a large satellite constellation, “the goal should be a failure rate of … 1 percent or lower and even that will lead to dozens of dead satellites.”

At the moment, the Starlink project has at least 1,350 satellites in orbit. There’s talk of building up to 12,000 small satellites for its broadband network (in six years, the company says, the number could be as high as 42,000). OneWeb, a British company, has fewer than 150 satellites in space right now, with its final network projected to cap out around 650. Reports about Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper anticipate that it will have more than 3,000 satellites. The Canadian operator Telesat has plans for 300. Russia and China may be working on their own satellite constellations, while an EU official told The Wall Street Journal that developing a ring of internet-beaming satellites was “a strategic priority.”

It’s not clear, however, if all of this competition—both between profit-hungry corporations and power-hungry nation-states—will benefit the public, especially when there is potentially more to be gained by building out terrestrial internet infrastructure. Still, a monopoly managed by a global consortium, much like the internet itself, would guarantee more international cooperation, a less crowded sky, and likely a fairer deal for consumers. It would also help mitigate the costs of failure. Last year, three different satellite communications providers went bankrupt in three months. One of them was OneWeb, which received significant investment from SoftBank, a funder of WeWork, Uber, and other money-losing startups (OneWeb has since found new investors). One of the industry’s worst failures was Iridium, a $5 billion satellite network that filed for bankruptcy in 1999. It’s been resurrected in the meantime—SpaceX even launched some of its satellites—but remains unprofitable.

In October, Starlink launched a test run of its internet service, calling it a “Better Than Nothing Beta.” While the negative consequences of patchy internet service may be mild for customers who sign up for this trial, this cavalier approach—with a blasé attitude toward safety and mechanical failure—can be found throughout Elon Musk’s empire. (SpaceX and Tesla did not respond to questions about their safety records before publication.) Just last week, a Tesla apparently engaged in self-driving mode—or autopilot, as the company has also called it—crashed with two passengers inside, killing them both in a horrific inferno that took four hours and 32,000 gallons of water to extinguish. (In an echo of the EU/Starlink near miss, firefighters had to call Tesla for help on putting out a lithium battery fire.) While the passengers were clearly acting irresponsibly—no one was behind the wheel to take over in an emergency, as Tesla advises—the mere fact that Tesla has made this feature widely available encourages customers to put their faith, and their lives, in an unproven, unregulated technology.

Similarly, while managing the space-junk problem requires close coordination between private firms and a number of government agencies, SpaceX has once again followed Musk’s instinct to go it alone. Starlink has an automated AI avoidance system about which it’s released few details. Critics have said that an automated system isn’t useful when avoiding collisions requires different satellite owners or governments cooperating with one another. If your satellite is programmed to move automatically, how can I anticipate where to send mine without provoking a collision?

From unpredictable self-driving vehicles to rockets strewing debris across Texas wetlands to the increasingly busy sky overhead, the world has become Elon Musk’s test lab. Whether you believe in Musk’s solar system–altering mission or not, people are experimenting with his products all around you. The risks apply to nearly all of us, while the rewards will accrue to Musk and his shareholders.

Not all blame can be heaped at the fanboy-worshipped feet of Musk. A lack of government investment in new technologies and public infrastructure has rendered NASA and the space program a shadow of itself. The inclusion of broadband investment in the recent Biden stimulus package was long overdue. Self-driving car regulations vary by state. Absent meaningful federal action, there’s little to stop Musk from rolling out Tesla’s autonomous capabilities as a series of incremental patches and upgrades, rather than ensuring that the system is fully tested and secure. In the same way, with satellites becoming cheaper to launch and easily iterated upon, space is his to do with as he pleases.

With SpaceX now launching U.S. government satellites and ferrying NASA astronauts—the company was recently chosen to return Americans to the moon—it seems as if the U.S. government has picked its winner. Like most of Elon Musk’s companies, SpaceX/Starlink has benefited enormously from government funding. Last year, the company received $885.5 million in subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission as part of a program to bring internet access to rural areas. Starlink received about 10 percent of all funding the FCC distributed this way; the rest of the $9.2 billion was apportioned among 179 other companies, indicating a strong degree of U.S. government support for Musk’s project.

As a professor of aerospace engineering told The Wall Street Journal, “Musk is just doing what’s legal … but legal is not necessarily safe or sustainable.” But who’s going to stop him?