How the U.S. government came to rely on the tech billionaire—and is now struggling to rein him in.
ast October, Colin Kahl, then the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon, sat in a hotel in Paris and prepared to make a call to avert disaster in Ukraine. A staffer handed him an iPhone—in part to avoid inviting an onslaught of late-night texts and colorful emojis on Kahl’s own phone. Kahl had returned to his room, with its heavy drapery and distant view of the Eiffel Tower, after a day of meetings with officials from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. A senior defense official told me that Kahl was surprised by whom he was about to contact: “He was, like, ‘Why am I calling Elon Musk?’ ”
The reason soon became apparent. “Even though Musk is not technically a diplomat or statesman, I felt it was important to treat him as such, given the influence he had on this issue,” Kahl told me. SpaceX, Musk’s space-exploration company, had for months been providing Internet access across Ukraine, allowing the country’s forces to plan attacks and to defend themselves. But, in recent days, the forces had found their connectivity severed as they entered territory contested by Russia. More alarmingly, SpaceX had recently given the Pentagon an ultimatum: if it didn’t assume the cost of providing service in Ukraine, which the company calculated at some four hundred million dollars annually, it would cut off access. “We started to get a little panicked,” the senior defense official, one of four who described the standoff to me, recalled. Musk “could turn it off at any given moment. And that would have real operational impact for the Ukrainians.”
Musk had become involved in the war in Ukraine soon after Russia invaded, in February, 2022. Along with conventional assaults, the Kremlin was conducting cyberattacks against Ukraine’s digital infrastructure. Ukrainian officials and a loose coalition of expatriates in the tech sector, brainstorming in group chats on WhatsApp and Signal, found a potential solution: SpaceX, which manufactures a line of mobile Internet terminals called Starlink. The tripod-mounted dishes, each about the size of a computer display and clad in white plastic reminiscent of the sleek design sensibility of Musk’s Tesla electric cars, connect with a network of satellites. The units have limited range, but in this situation that was an advantage: although a nationwide network of dishes was required, it would be difficult for Russia to completely dismantle Ukrainian connectivity. Of course, Musk could do so. Three people involved in bringing Starlink to Ukraine, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they worried that Musk, if upset, could withdraw his services, told me that they originally overlooked the significance of his personal control. “Nobody thought about it back then,” one of them, a Ukrainian tech executive, told me. “It was all about ‘Let’s fucking go, people are dying.’ ”
In the ensuing months, fund-raising in Silicon Valley’s Ukrainian community, contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development and with European governments, and pro-bono contributions from SpaceX facilitated the transfer of thousands of Starlink units to Ukraine. A soldier in Ukraine’s signal corps who was responsible for maintaining Starlink access on the front lines, and who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mykola, told me, “It’s the essential backbone of communication on the battlefield.”
Initially, Musk showed unreserved support for the Ukrainian cause, responding encouragingly as Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian minister for digital transformation, tweeted pictures of equipment in the field. But, as the war ground on, SpaceX began to balk at the cost. “We are not in a position to further donate terminals to Ukraine, or fund the existing terminals for an indefinite period of time,” SpaceX’s director of government sales told the Pentagon in a letter, last September. (CNBC recently valued SpaceX at nearly a hundred and fifty billion dollars. Forbes estimated Musk’s personal net worth at two hundred and twenty billion dollars, making him the world’s richest man.)
Musk was also growing increasingly uneasy with the fact that his technology was being used for warfare. That month, at a conference in Aspen attended by business and political figures, Musk even appeared to express support for Vladimir Putin. “He was onstage, and he said, ‘We should be negotiating. Putin wants peace—we should be negotiating peace with Putin,’ ” Reid Hoffman, who helped start PayPal with Musk, recalled. Musk seemed, he said, to have “bought what Putin was selling, hook, line, and sinker.” A week later, Musk tweeted a proposal for his own peace plan, which called for new referendums to redraw the borders of Ukraine, and granted Russia control of Crimea, the semi-autonomous peninsula recognized by most nations, including the United States, as Ukrainian territory. In later tweets, Musk portrayed as inevitable an outcome favoring Russia and attached maps highlighting eastern Ukrainian territories, some of which, he argued, “prefer Russia.” Musk also polled his Twitter followers about the plan. Millions responded, with about sixty per cent rejecting the proposal. (Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s President, tweeted his own poll, asking users whether they preferred the Elon Musk who supported Ukraine or the one who now seemed to back Russia. The former won, though Zelensky’s poll had a smaller turnout: Musk has more than twenty times as many followers.)
By then, Musk’s sympathies appeared to be manifesting on the battlefield. One day, Ukrainian forces advancing into contested areas in the south found themselves suddenly unable to communicate. “We were very close to the front line,” Mykola, the signal-corps soldier, told me. “We crossed this border and the Starlink stopped working.” The consequences were immediate. “Communications became dead, units were isolated. When you’re on offense, especially for commanders, you need a constant stream of information from battalions. Commanders had to drive to the battlefield to be in radio range, risking themselves,” Mykola said. “It was chaos.” Ukrainian expats who had raised funds for the Starlink units began receiving frantic calls. The tech executive recalls a Ukrainian military official telling him, “We need Elon now.” “How now?” he replied. “Like fucking now,” the official said. “People are dying.” Another Ukrainian involved told me that he was “awoken by a dozen calls saying they’d lost connectivity and had to retreat.” The Financial Times reported that outages affected units in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk. American and Ukrainian officials told me they believed that SpaceX had cut the connectivity via geofencing, cordoning off areas of access.
The senior defense official said, “We had a whole series of meetings internal to the department to try to figure out what we could do about this.” Musk’s singular role presented unfamiliar challenges, as did the government’s role as intermediary. “It wasn’t like we could hold him in breach of contract or something,” the official continued. The Pentagon would need to reach a contractual arrangement with SpaceX so that, at the very least, Musk “couldn’t wake up one morning and just decide, like, he didn’t want to do this anymore.” Kahl added, “It was kind of a way for us to lock in services across Ukraine. It could at least prevent Musk from turning off the switch altogether.”
Typically, such a negotiation would be handled by the Pentagon’s acquisitions department. But Musk had become more than just a vender like Boeing, Lockheed, or other defense-industry behemoths. On the phone with Musk from Paris, Kahl was deferential. According to unclassified talking points for the call, he thanked Musk for his efforts in Ukraine, acknowledged the steep costs he’d incurred, and pleaded for even a few weeks to devise a contract. “If you cut this off, it doesn’t end the war,” Kahl recalled telling Musk.
Musk wasn’t immediately convinced. “My inference was that he was getting nervous that Starlink’s involvement was increasingly seen in Russia as enabling the Ukrainian war effort, and was looking for a way to placate Russian concerns,” Kahl told me. To the dismay of Pentagon officials, Musk volunteered that he had spoken with Putin personally. Another individual told me that Musk had made the same assertion in the weeks before he tweeted his pro-Russia peace plan, and had said that his consultations with the Kremlin were regular. (Musk later denied having spoken with Putin about Ukraine.) On the phone, Musk said that he was looking at his laptop and could see “the entire war unfolding” through a map of Starlink activity. “This was, like, three minutes before he said, ‘Well, I had this great conversation with Putin,’ ” the senior defense official told me. “And we were, like, ‘Oh, dear, this is not good.’ ” Musk told Kahl that the vivid illustration of how technology he had designed for peaceful ends was being used to wage war gave him pause.
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After a fifteen-minute call, Musk agreed to give the Pentagon more time. He also, after public blowback and with evident annoyance, walked back his threats to cut off service. “The hell with it,” he tweeted. “Even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.” This June, the Department of Defense announced that it had reached a deal with SpaceX.
The meddling of oligarchs and other monied interests in the fate of nations is not new. During the First World War, J. P. Morgan lent vast sums to the Allied powers; afterward, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., poured money into the fledgling League of Nations. The investor George Soros’s Open Society Foundations underwrote civil-society reform in post-Soviet Europe, and the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson funded right-wing media in Israel, as part of his support of Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Musk’s influence is more brazen and expansive. There is little precedent for a civilian’s becoming the arbiter of a war between nations in such a granular way, or for the degree of dependency that the U.S. now has on Musk in a variety of fields, from the future of energy and transportation to the exploration of space. SpaceX is currently the sole means by which nasa transports crew from U.S. soil into space, a situation that will persist for at least another year. The government’s plan to move the auto industry toward electric cars requires increasing access to charging stations along America’s highways. But this rests on the actions of another Musk enterprise, Tesla. The automaker has seeded so much of the country with its proprietary charging stations that the Biden Administration relaxed an early push for a universal charging standard disliked by Musk. His stations are eligible for billions of dollars in subsidies, so long as Tesla makes them compatible with the other charging standard.
In the past twenty years, against a backdrop of crumbling infrastructure and declining trust in institutions, Musk has sought out business opportunities in crucial areas where, after decades of privatization, the state has receded. The government is now reliant on him, but struggles to respond to his risk-taking, brinkmanship, and caprice. Current and former officials from nasa, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told me that Musk’s influence had become inescapable in their work, and several of them said that they now treat him like a sort of unelected official. One Pentagon spokesman said that he was keeping Musk apprised of my inquiries about his role in Ukraine and would grant an interview with an official about the matter only with Musk’s permission. “We’ll talk to you if Elon wants us to,” he told me. In a podcast interview last year, Musk was asked whether he has more influence than the American government. He replied immediately, “In some ways.” Reid Hoffman told me that Musk’s attitude is “like Louis XIV: ‘L’état, c’est moi.’ ”
Musk’s power continues to grow. His takeover of Twitter, which he has rebranded “X,” gives him a critical forum for political discourse ahead of the next Presidential election. He recently launched an artificial-intelligence company, a move that follows years of involvement in the technology. Musk has become a hyper-exposed pop-culture figure, and his sharp turns from altruistic to vainglorious, strategic to impulsive, have been the subject of innumerable articles and at least seven major books, including a forthcoming biography by Walter Isaacson. But the nature and the scope of his power are less widely understood.
More than thirty of Musk’s current and former colleagues in various industries and a dozen individuals in his personal life spoke to me about their experiences with him. Sam Altman, the C.E.O. of OpenAI, with whom Musk has both worked and sparred, told me, “Elon desperately wants the world to be saved. But only if he can be the one to save it.”
The terms of the Starlink deal have not been made public. Ukrainian officials say that they have not faced further service interruptions. But Musk has continued to express ambivalence about how the technology is being used, and where it can be deployed. In February, he tweeted, “We will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3.” He said, as he had told Kahl, that he was sincerely attempting to navigate the moral dilemmas of his role: “We’re trying hard to do the right thing, where the ‘right thing’ is an extremely difficult moral question.”
Musk’s hesitation aligns with his pragmatic interests. A facility in Shanghai produces half of all Tesla cars, and Musk depends on the good will of officials in China, which has lent support to Russia in the conflict. Musk recently acknowledged to the Financial Times that Beijing disapproves of his decision to provide Internet service to Ukraine and has sought assurances that he would not deploy similar technology in China. In the same interview, he responded to questions about China’s efforts to assert control over Taiwan by floating another peace plan. Taiwan, he suggested, could become a jointly controlled administrative zone, an outcome that Taiwanese leaders see as ending the country’s independence. During a trip to Beijing this spring, Musk was welcomed with what Reuters summarized as “flattery and feasts.” He met with senior officials, including China’s foreign minister, and posed for the kinds of awkwardly smiling formal photos that are more typical of world leaders.
National-security officials I spoke with had a range of views on the government’s balance of power with Musk. He maintains good relationships with some of them, including General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Since the two men met, several years ago, when Milley was the chief of staff of the Army, they have discussed “technology applications to warfare—artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, and autonomous machines,” Milley told me. “He has insight that helped shape my thoughts on the fundamental change in the character of war and the modernization of the U.S. military.” During the Starlink controversy, Musk called him for advice. But other officials expressed profound misgivings. “Living in the world we live in, in which Elon runs this company and it is a private business under his control, we are living off his good graces,” a Pentagon official told me. “That sucks.”
One summer evening in the mid-nineteen-eighties, Musk and his friend Theo Taoushiani took Taoushiani’s father’s car for an illicit drive. Musk and Taoushiani were both in their mid-teens, and lived about a mile apart in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. Neither had a driver’s license, or permission from Taoushiani’s father. But they were passionate Dungeons & Dragons fans, and a new module—a fresh scenario in the game—had just been released. Taoushiani took the wheel for the twenty-minute drive to the Sandton City mall. “Elon was my co-pilot,” Taoushiani told me. “We went under the cover of darkness.” At the mall, they found that they didn’t have enough money. But Musk promised a salesperson that they would return the next day with the rest, and dropped the name of a well-known Greek restaurant owned by Taoushiani’s family. “Elon had the gift of the gab,” Taoushiani said. “He’s very persuasive, and he’s quite dogged in his determination.” The two went home with the module.
Musk was born in 1971 in Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital, and he and his younger brother, Kimbal, and his younger sister, Tosca, grew up under apartheid. Musk’s mother, Maye, a Canadian model and dietitian, and his father, Errol, an engineer, divorced when he was young, and the children initially stayed with Maye. She has said that Errol was physically abusive toward her. “He would hit me when the kids were around,” she wrote in her memoir. “I remember that Tosca and Kimbal, who were two and four, respectively, would cry in the corner, and Elon, who was five, would hit him on the backs of his knees to try to stop him.” By the mid-eighties, Musk had moved in with his father—a decision that he has said was motivated by concern for his father’s loneliness, and which he came to regret. Musk, usually impassive in interviews, cried openly when he told Rolling Stone about the years that followed, in which, he said, his father psychologically tortured him, in ways that he declined to specify. “You have no idea about how bad,” he said. “Almost every crime you can possibly think of, he has done. Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done.” Taoushiani recalled witnessing Errol “chastise Elon a lot. Maybe belittle him.” (Errol Musk has denied allegations that he was abusive to Maye or to his children.) Musk has also said that he was violently bullied at school. Though he is now six feet one, with a broad-shouldered build, he was “much, much smaller back in school,” Taoushiani told me. “He wasn’t very social.”
Musk has said that he has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of what is now known as autism-spectrum disorder, which is characterized by difficulty with social interactions. As a child, he would sometimes fall into trancelike states of deep thought, during which he was so unresponsive that his mother eventually took him to a doctor to check his hearing. Musk’s quiet side persists—in my own interactions with him, I have found him to be thoughtful and measured. (Musk declined to answer questions for this story.) He can also be, as he joked during a stilted “Saturday Night Live” monologue, “pretty good at running human, in emulation mode.”
Musk escaped into science fiction and video games. “One of the reasons I got into technology, maybe the reason, was video games,” he said at a gaming-industry convention several years ago. In his early teens, Musk coded an eight-bit shooter game in the style of Space Invaders called Blastar, whose title screen, in a novelistic flourish, credits him as “E. R. Musk.” The premise was basic: “mission: destroy alien freighter carrying deadly hydrogen bombs and status beam machines.” But it won recognition from a South African trade magazine, which published the game’s hundred and sixty-seven lines of code and paid Musk a small sum.
Musk often talks about his science-fiction influences. Some have manifested in straightforward ways: he has connected his love of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” novels, whose characters grapple with a mathematically precise prediction of their civilization’s collapse, to his obsession with insuring human survival beyond Earth. But some of Musk’s touchstones present ironies. He has said that his hero is Douglas Adams, the writer who skewered both the hyper-rich and the progress-at-any-cost ethos that Musk has come to embody. In the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” novels and radio plays, the latter of which were broadcast in South Africa during Musk’s childhood, a narcissistic playboy becomes the president of the galaxy, and Earth is demolished to make way for a space transit route. Musk is also an avowed fan of Deus Ex, a role-playing first-person-shooter video game that he has brought up when discussing his company Neuralink, which aspires to invent ability-enhancing body modifications like those featured in the game. During the pandemic, Musk seemed to embrace covid denialism, and for a while he changed his Twitter profile picture to an image of the protagonist of the game, which turns on a manufactured plague designed to control the masses. But Deus Ex, like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” is a fundamentally anti-capitalist text, in which the plague is the culmination of unrestrained corporate power, and the villain is the world’s richest man, a media-darling tech entrepreneur with global aspirations and political leaders under his control.
In 1999, Musk stood outside his Bay Area home to accept the delivery of a million-dollar McLaren F1 sports car. He was in his late twenties, and wearing an oversized brown blazer. “Some could interpret purchasing this car as behavior characteristic of an imperialist brat,” he told a CNN news crew. Then he beamed, saying that there were only about sixty such cars in the world. “My values may have changed,” he added, “but I’m not consciously aware of my values having changed.” Musk’s fiancée, a Canadian writer named Justine Wilson, seemed more aware. “It’s a million-dollar car. It’s decadent,” she said. “My fear is that we become spoiled brats. That we lose a sense of appreciation and perspective.” The McLaren, she observed, was “the perfect car for Silicon Valley.”
Musk had moved to Canada when he was in his late teens, and met Wilson when they both attended Queen’s University, in Ontario. He later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with degrees in economics and physics. In 1995, the early days of the World Wide Web, he and Kimbal founded a company that came to be called Zip2, an online city directory that they sold to newspapers. Musk has often described the company’s humble origins, saying that he and his brother lived and worked in a small studio apartment, showering at a nearby Y.M.C.A. and eating at Jack in the Box. (Errol at one point gave his sons twenty-eight thousand dollars. Musk, who has a tendency to fuss over questions of credit, has stated that his father’s contribution came “much later,” in a round of funding that “would’ve happened anyway.”) At Zip2, Musk developed what he describes as his “hard-core” work style; even after he had his own apartment, he often slept on a beanbag at the office. But, in the end, the company’s investors stripped him of his leadership role and installed a more experienced chief executive. Musk believed that the startup should have been targeting not just newspapers but consumers. Investors pursued a more modest vision instead. In 1999, Zip2 was sold to Compaq for three hundred and seven million dollars, earning Musk more than twenty million dollars.
Justine and Musk married the following year. After their first child died at ten weeks, from sudden infant death syndrome, the couple dealt with the tragedy in very different ways. Justine, by her account, grieved openly; Musk later told one of his biographers, Ashlee Vance, that “wallowing in sadness does no good for anyone around you.” After pursuing I.V.F. treatment, the couple had twins, then triplets. (Musk now has at least nine children with three different women, and has said that he is doing his part to address one of his pet issues, the risk of population collapse; demographers are skeptical about the matter.) Justine wrote in an essay for Marie Claire that their relationship eventually buckled under the weight of Musk’s obsession with work and his controlling tendencies, which began with him insisting, as they danced at their wedding, “I am the alpha in this relationship.” A messy divorce ensued, leading to a legal dispute over their postnuptial financial agreement, which was settled years later. “He had grown up in the male-dominated culture of South Africa,” Justine wrote. “The will to compete and dominate that made him so successful in business did not magically shut off when he came home.” (Musk wrote a response to Justine’s account in Business Insider, discussing the financial dispute, but he did not address Justine’s characterizations of his behavior.)
After Musk left Zip2, he poured some twelve million dollars, a majority of his wealth, into another startup, an online bank called X.com. It was the first instance of his obsession with the letter “X,” which has now appeared in the names of his companies, his products, and his son with the artist Grimes: X Æ A-12. The bank also marked the beginning of a long and so far unfulfilled quest—recently revived in his effort to reinvent Twitter—to create an “everything app,” incorporating a payment system. In 2000, X.com merged with a competing online-payments startup, Confinity, co-founded by the entrepreneur Peter Thiel. In events that have since become Silicon Valley lore, Musk and Thiel battled for control of the company. Various accounts apportion blame differently. Hoffman told me, citing the story as an example of Musk’s disingenuousness, that Musk had pushed for the merger by highlighting the leadership of his company’s seasoned executive, only to force out the executive and place himself in the top role. “A merger like this, you’re doing a marriage,” Hoffman said. “And it’s, like, ‘I was lying to you intensely while we were dating. Now that we’re married, let me tell you about the herpes.’ ” People who have worked with Musk often describe him as controlling. One said, “In the areas he wants to compete in, he has a very hard time sharing the spotlight, or not being the center of attention.” In the fall of 2000, another coup, executed while Musk was on a long-delayed honeymoon with Justine, overthrew Musk and installed Thiel as the company’s head. Two years later, eBay acquired the company, by then called PayPal, for $1.5 billion, making Musk, who remained the largest shareholder, fabulously wealthy.
Perhaps the most revealing moment in the PayPal saga happened at its outset. In March, 2000, as the merger was under way, Musk was driving his new McLaren, with Thiel in the passenger seat. The two were on Sand Hill Road, an artery that cuts through Silicon Valley. Thiel asked Musk, “So what can this do?” Musk replied, “Watch this,” then floored the gas pedal, hit an embankment, and sent the car airborne and spinning before it slammed back onto the pavement, blowing out its suspension and its windows. “This isn’t insured,” Musk told Thiel. Musk’s critics have used the story to illustrate his reckless showboating, but it also underscores how often Musk has been rewarded for that behavior: he repaired the McLaren, drove it for several more years, then reportedly sold it at a profit. Musk delights in telling the story, lingering on the risk to his life. In one interview, asked whether there were parallels with his approach to building companies, Musk said, “I hope not.” Appearing to consider the idea, he added, “Watch this. Yeah, that could be awkward with a rocket launch.”
Of all Musk’s enterprises, SpaceX may be the one that most fundamentally reflects his appetite for risk. Staff at SpaceX’s Starship facility, in Boca Chica, Texas, spent December of 2020 preparing for the launch of a rocket known as SN8, then the newest prototype in the company’s Starship program, which it hopes will eventually transport humans to orbit, to the moon, and, in the mission Musk speaks about with the most passion, to Mars. The F.A.A. had approved an initial launch date for the rocket. But an engine issue forced SpaceX to delay by a day. By then, the weather had shifted. On the new day, the F.A.A. told SpaceX that, according to its model of the wind’s speed and direction, if the rocket exploded it could create a blast wave that risked damaging the windows of nearby houses. A series of tense meetings followed, with SpaceX presenting its own modelling to establish that the launch was safe, and the F.A.A. refusing to grant permission. Wayne Monteith, then the head of the agency’s space division, was leaving an event at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station when he received a frustrated call from Musk. “Look, you cannot launch,” Monteith told him. “You’re not cleared to launch.” Musk acknowledged the order.
Musk was on site in Boca Chica when SpaceX launched anyway. The rocket achieved liftoff and successfully performed several maneuvers intended to rehearse those of an eventual manned Starship. But, on landing, the SN8 came in too fast, and exploded on impact. (No windows were damaged.) The next day, Musk visited the crash site. In a picture taken that day, Musk stands next to the twisted steel of the rocket, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, looking determined, his arms crossed and his eyes narrowed. His tweets about the explosion were celebratory, not apologetic. “He has a long history of launching and blowing up rockets. And then he puts out videos of all the rockets that he’s blown up. And like half of America thinks it’s really cool,” the former nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine told me. “He has a different set of rules.”
Hans Koenigsmann, then SpaceX’s vice-president for flight reliability, started working on a customary report to the F.A.A. about the launch. Koenigsmann told me that he felt pressure to minimize focus on the launch process and Musk’s role in it. “I sensed that he wanted it taken out,” Koenigsmann said. “I disagreed, and in the end we wound up with a very different version from what was originally intended.” Eventually, Koenigsmann was told not to write a report at all, and a letter was sent to the F.A.A. instead. The agency, meanwhile, opened its own investigation. Monteith told me that he agreed with Musk that the F.A.A. had been conservative about a situation that presented little statistical risk of casualties, but he was nevertheless troubled. “We had safety folks who were very upset about it,” Monteith recalled. In a series of letters to SpaceX, Monteith accused the company of relying on data “hastily developed to meet a launch window,” launching “based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions,’ ” and exhibiting “a concerning lack of operational control and process discipline that is inconsistent with a strong safety culture.” In its responses, SpaceX proposed various safety reforms, but also pushed back, complaining that the F.A.A.’s weather model was unreliable and suggesting that the agency had been resistant to discussions about improving it. (SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.)
The following March, Steve Dickson, then the F.A.A.’s administrator, called Musk. The two men spoke for thirty minutes. Like Kahl, Dickson was deferential, thanking Musk for his role in transforming the commercial space sector and acknowledging that SpaceX was taking steps to make its launches less risky. But Dickson, an F.A.A. spokesperson said in a statement, “made it clear that the FAA expects SpaceX to develop and foster a robust safety culture that stresses adherence to FAA rules.” Dickson had navigated such conversations before, including with Boeing after two 737 max aircraft crashed. But this situation presented a thornier challenge. “It’s not every day that the F.A.A. administrator releases a statement about a phone call that they have with the C.E.O. or the head of an aerospace company,” an official at the agency told me. “That kind of gets into the soft pressure, public pressure that you don’t do unless you are trying to change the incentive structure.”
The F.A.A. issued no fine, though it grounded SpaceX for two months. “I didn’t see that a fine would make any difference,” Monteith told me. “He could pull that out of his pocket. However, not allowing launches, that would get the attention of a company that prides itself on being able to iterate and go fast.” Musk has continued to complain about the agency. After it postponed another launch, he tweeted, “The FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.” He added, “Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
Musk has been fixated on space since his childhood. The idea for SpaceX came about after his exile from PayPal. “I went to the nasa website so I could see the schedule of when we’re supposed to go” to Mars, Musk told Wired, in 2012. “At first I thought, jeez, maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place! Why was there no plan, no schedule? There was nothing.” In 2001, he connected with space-exploration enthusiasts, and even travelled to Russia in an unsuccessful bid to buy missiles to use as rockets. The next year, he moved to Los Angeles, closer to California’s aerospace industry, and ultimately he pulled together a team of engineers and entrepreneurs and founded SpaceX, to make his own rockets. Private rocket launches date back to the eighties, but no one had attempted anything on the scale that Musk envisioned, and it proved to be more difficult and expensive than he had anticipated. Musk has said that, by 2008, the company was nearly bankrupt, and that, after putting much of his wealth into SpaceX and Tesla, he wasn’t far behind. “That was definitely the worst year of my life,” he said in an interview on “60 Minutes.” SpaceX’s first three launches had failed, and there was no budget for another. “I had no more money left,” Musk told Bridenstine, the nasa administrator, years later. “We managed to put together enough spare parts to do a fourth launch.” Had that failed, he added, “SpaceX would have died.” The launch was successful, and nasa soon awarded SpaceX a $1.6-billion contract to resupply the International Space Station. In 2020, the company flew its first manned mission there—ending nearly a decade of American reliance on Russian craft for the task. SpaceX now launches more satellites than any other private company, with four thousand five hundred and nineteen in orbit as of July, occupying many of Earth’s orbital routes. “Once the carrying capacity of an orbit is maxed out, you’ve basically blocked everyone from trying to compete in that market,” Bridenstine told me.
There are competitors in the field, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, but none yet rival SpaceX. The new space race has the potential to shape the global balance of power. Satellites enable the navigation of drones and missiles and generate imagery used for intelligence, and they are mostly under the control of private companies. “The U.S. government is in massive catch-up to build a more resilient space architecture,” Kahl, the former Pentagon Under-Secretary, told me. “And that only works if you can leverage the explosion of commercial space.” Several officials told me that they were alarmed by nasa’s reliance on SpaceX for essential services. “There is only one thing worse than a government monopoly. And that is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on,” Bridenstine said. “I do worry that we have put all of our eggs into one basket, and it’s the SpaceX basket.”
Even Musk’s critics concede that his tendency to push against constraints has helped catalyze SpaceX’s success. A number of officials suggested to me that, despite the tensions related to the company, it has made government bureaucracies nimbler. “When SpaceX and nasa work together, we work closer to optimal speed,” Kenneth Bowersox, nasa’s associate administrator for space operations, told me. Still, some figures in the aerospace world, even ones who think that Musk’s rockets are basically safe, fear that concentrating so much power in private companies, with so few restraints, invites tragedy. “At some point, with new competitors emerging, progress will be thwarted when there’s an accident, and people won’t be confident in the capabilities commercial companies have,” Bridenstine said. “I mean, we just saw this submersible going down to visit the Titanic implode. I think we have to think about the non-regulatory environment as sometimes hurting the industry more than the regulatory environment.”
In early 2022, Steven Cliff, then the deputy administrator of the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, learned that potentially tens of thousands of Tesla vehicles had a feature that he found concerning. For years, Tesla has been working to create a totally self-driving car, a long-standing ambition of Musk’s. Now Cliff was told that a version of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving software, an experimental feature that lets the cars navigate with little intervention from a driver, permitted cars to roll through stop signs, at up to about six miles an hour. This was clearly illegal. Cliff’s enforcement team contacted Tesla, and, in several meetings, a surprising conversation about safety and artificial intelligence played out. Representatives for Tesla seemed confused. Their response, as Cliff recalled, was “That’s what humans do all the time. Show us the data, why it’s unsafe.” N.H.T.S.A. officials told Tesla that, regardless of human compliance, “you should not be able to program a computer to break the law for you.” They demanded that Tesla update all the affected cars, removing the feature—a recall, in industry terms, albeit a digital one. “There was a lot of back-and-forth,” Cliff told me. “Like, at midnight on the very last day, they blinked and ended up recalling the rolling-stop feature.” (Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.)