Opinion

NDAA Should Not Give Elon Musk A Monopoly

Elon Musk is a very smart, rich man. Forbes Magazine estimates that the South African-born Canadian American business magnate, investor, engineer, and inventor is worth $20.7 billion. Capitalist proponents of the free enterprise system and economic liberty should commend Musk for earning much of his wealth through hard work, savvy marketing, and producing technological innovation. However, when he enriches himself on the taxpayer’s dime through the force of government, his efforts should be called into question and rebuffed.

One such endeavor that Musk has built largely off the backs of the American people pertains to his company called, SpaceX, or the “Space Exploration Technologies Corp.,” which designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. Headquartered in Hawthorne, California, the for-profit company known as SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Musk with the stated purpose of reducing space transportation costs and potentially colonizing the planet Mars.

Such lofty interstellar goals seem noble and innocuous enough to defy close inspection until one comes to grips with the way SpaceX uses lobbyists and government legislation to get ahead in this specialized industry, siphoning off millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for its services and products.

Case in point: There are only two major, price-competitive launch systems, the Atlas V and Elon Musk and SpaceX’s Falcon 9, a family of two-stage-to-orbit medium lift launch vehicles, named for its use of nine first-stage engines. However, upon closer scrutiny, it needs to be pointed out that the Atlas V uses RD-180s, Russian rocket engines, on the first stage of launch. Arguably for reasonable national security reasons, Congress has a ban on those engines that will commence in 2022. Although defense experts cautioned against restricting the RD-180s sooner than this, SpaceX hired the lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs to push a bill that, by many accounts, would not have given the U.S. government enough time to develop replacements.

While SpaceX lost that prong of the lobbying battle, the current 2022-set ban means that if a new launch system is not initiated soon, Musk will corner the market and SpaceX will be the only remaining competitive launch system available. This is particularly relevant in regards to the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Agreement (NDAA), pending legislation that contains several controversial amendments that may unreasonably propel SpaceX’s medium lift launch vehicle above the rest. Particularly controversial is Section 1615 of the House bill, which would stop the Air Force’s public-private partnerships to develop new launch systems. This is an issue because it could lead to SpaceX receiving a government-created monopoly once and for all.

The Air Force and White House object to Section 1615, arguing it may hurt national security, restrict domestic competition, and increase taxpayer costs by billions of dollars through FY 2027. Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul also objects to Section 1615, writing that it will “stifle innovation in rocket launching technology.”

It does not have to stay this way. As I write this, the conferees on the Armed Services Conference Committee are analyzing the discrepancies between the House and Senate NDAAs. Yesterday, The Hill reported that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) believes the process may be completed “in days.” It should not be rushed. The conferees, especially ranking House Armed Services Committee member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who signed a letter to James Mattis earlier this year warning him of the demerits of this very policy, should ensure that the final bill does not include Section 1615.

Elon Musk’s new activities with SpaceX can be likened to the nefarious Mr. Burns in a 1997 episode of the long-running animated comedy The Simpsons, entitled, “The Old Man and the Lisa.” After claiming bankruptcy, Mr. Burns apparently turned a new leaf and transformed into an altruistic, environmentally-conscious entrepreneur. Over time, however, he re-became a multimillionaire not by making a stand-up product, but rather duping the public through producing a multi-purpose edible compound made from squished sea life. Similarly, Elon Musk appears to have had altruistic motives in producing these launch systems for future space travel, but he now seems to be angling to have friends in the government muscle out his competitors at the American taxpayers’ expense.

The Republican-controlled Congress is supposed to be draining the Washington, D.C. swamp of real-world Mr. Burnses, not expanding their power. Hopefully over the next few days, they will make the right decision.

Lee Enochs is a political commentator and a graduate student at Princeton University, where he studies political philosophy and theology. He is the author of “The Case for Rand Paul.


Views expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.