Elon, SpaceX and Ukraine
By Trung Phan
What is Elon’s history with Russia? How is Starlink working in Ukraine? Is SpaceX a national security asset?
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Today, we’ll be talking about Elon, SpaceX and Ukraine.
PS. If you missed my last email, it was about how fast information is moving during Ukraine-Russia and is a complements to this piece. As we enter the 2nd week of the conflict, my thoughts remain with the citizens of Ukraine and anyone affected by the war.
The SpaceX origin story never gets old.
It reads like an IMDB logline: “Successful entrepreneur takes a multi-million dollar windfall to Russia in hopes of buying missiles, so he can launch mice to Mars.”
The entrepreneur is obviously Elon Musk. And the rest of the details are true.
In 2001, Musk flew to Moscow and tried to acquire 3 repurposed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for $7m a piece. The deal never happened and — out of the failure — Musk launched SpaceX.
Over the past week, a SpaceX subplot has grown out of the wider Ukraine-Russia conflict. If you’ve been off Twitter, I’d first say “that’s probably a good thing”. Second, here is a summary of what has happened:
February 24, 2022
On the day that Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Dmitry Rogozin — the head of Russia’s space program (Roscosmos) — threatened the international space community in a Twitter tirade including this excerpt: “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the [International Space Station; ISS] from an uncontrolled de-orbit and fall into the United States or Europe.”
Elon signalled that SpaceX could pick up the slack by replying with the company’s logo:
February 26, 2022
Ukraine’s Vice PM asks Elon for SpaceX’s Starlink internet service. Two days later, Starlink terminals — which are needed to connect to Starlink’s satellite internet array — arrived in Ukraine (the service is later updated for efficient power consumption and mobile roaming).
March 2, 2022
On Russia Today, Rogozin complains that SpaceX is supplying Starlink to Ukraine and he questions why a “purely civilian” operation like SpaceX would do that.
Elon throws the word “civilian” back at Rogozin:
March 3, 2022
Rogozin lobs a jab at the US space industry: “In a situation like this, we can’t supply the US with our world’s best rocket engines. Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks.”
Elon replies with “American Broomstick”, referring to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and the memes — including lots of Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000 brooms — come rolling in (below on the right was the funniest meme imo; it highlights SpaceX’s “twin engine” rocket architecture):
Lastly, Elon gives a warning that the Starlink service should be used with caution as the Russian military can potentially target it:
Based on this background, there are a number of interesting threads that I want to pull on regarding SpaceX’s involvement in Ukraine:
Elon’s history with Russia
How is Starlink working in Ukraine?
SpaceX as a national security asset
Elon’s history with Russia
After SpaceX turned on Starlink for Ukraine, a popular Twitter joke was that “the Russians should have sold him those rockets”.
The jokes are alluding to Musk’s trips to Russia in 2001.
Back then, Musk was 30 and about to take PayPal public. In 2002, he netted $180m when eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5B (in 1999, he scored $15m after Zip2 — an online directory startup he founded with his brother Kimbal — sold to Compaq for $307m).
Musk has famously said, “my proceeds from the PayPal acquisition were $180m. I put $100m into SpaceX, $70m into Tesla, and $10m in Solar City. I had to borrow money for rent.” (As he once tweeted to me, “Basic principle is that I would not ask investors to risk money on my company if I would not also do so.”)
Some of the SpaceX money was earmarked to buy ICBMs. But why? Here are the highlights from a great Esquire article published in 2012:
The background: In May 2001 — before PayPal sold — Elon had a conversation with a U Penn friend named Adeo Ressi. They discussed the prospects of launching a space project but realized it might be too expensive and complicated. Later, Elon checked the NASA website for anything related to a Mars mission. There was nothing and Musk thought it “was some kind of mistake”. The realization that there was no NASA Mars mission spurred Musk into action.
The idea: Initially, Elon didn’t want to start a rocket company. Rather, he wanted to fly a living specimen to Mars — and have it survive — so as “to influence public opinion” about the possibility of long-distance space travel per Ressi. The pair launched a company called Life to Mars and initially planned to send a mouse to the Red Planet (the idea later pivoted to a plant or crop).
The cold call: To get the idea off the ground, Musk cold-called a Cold War rocket expert named Jim Cantrell. Here is Cantrell’s memory of the call, “I had the top down on my car, so all I could make out was that some guy named Ian Musk was saying that he was an Internet billionaire and needed to talk to me. I’m pretty sure he used that phrase, ‘Internet billionaire.’ ‘I want to change mankind’s outlook on being a multiplanetary species.’ I listened, and he said, ‘Can we meet this weekend? I have a private jet, I’ll fly to your house.’ Well, that rang my alarm bells, and I said, ‘No, I’ll meet you at the airport in Salt Lake.’ Tell you the truth, I wanted to meet him in a place where he couldn’t bring a weapon, so we met in the Delta Crown Room. Adeo came, and I finally thought, Holy crap, this is interesting. I said, ‘Okay, Elon, let’s put a team together and see how much this is going to cost.'”
The trip: Through Cantrell’s network, the team started “shopping” for rockets. It was a decade after the end of the Cold War and Soviet arms were up for grabs. The group flew to Moscow looking to buy 3 repurposed ICBMs for $7m each. Ressi recalls it was “still the Wild West” in Russia and that they “got pulled over multiple times, at gunpoint.” The meetings with the Russian space officials were “fuelled by vodka”. Later, the same Russians came to LA to meet Ressi and Musk for further negotiations. Upon arrival, they demanded $5k cash for party money. SPOILER ALERT: No deal was made.
The rebuff: Musk made two more trips to Russia. Ressi skipped the 2nd one (“I didn’t like dealing with Russian”). On this trip, Musk took Cantrell and his wife Justine. Allegedly, the lead Russian designer spit on them in disagreement. The final insult was on the 3rd trip: Musk had the funds ready but the Russians changed the price from $21m for 3 rockets to $21 for each rocket.
According to Esquire, here’s how Cantrell remembers the final trip:
“[The Russians] taunted him. They said, ‘Oh, little boy, you don’t have the money?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s that.’ I was sitting behind him on the flight back to London when he looked at me over the seat and said, ‘I think we can build a rocket ourselves. “I looked at it and said, I’ll be damned — that’s why he’s been borrowing all my books. He’d been borrowing all my college textbooks on rocketry and propulsion. You know, whenever anybody asks Elon how he learned to build rockets, he says, ‘I read books.’ Well, it’s true. He devoured those books. He knew everything. He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met, and he’d been planning to build a rocket all along.”
Here’s an abbreviated SpaceX timeline after the Russians told Elon to kick rocks:
March 2002: SpaceX incorporates.
September 2008: After 3 failed launches for the Falcon 1 Rocket, SpaceX becomes the “the first privately built liquid-fuelled booster to reach orbit.” (An astounding achievement considering the fact that only massive nation states — Russia, China, USA — had previously done it)
July 2011: NASA sends its final space shuttle to orbit. An American-rocket wouldn’t launch a crew to space for the next 9 years. As you can imagine, a dependency on Russian rockets is … not … great.
March 2014: Musk tells Bloomberg that “we’re supposed to pay $70m per seat to the Russians just to go to the [International Space Station]. They have us over a barrel. Being at Putin’s mercy is not a good place to be. So we want to restore the American ability to transport astronauts to the [ISS] and beyond some day. It’ll be a better product for a lot less money. And it’s just kind of embarrassing that Americans have to thumb rides from the Russians.”
April 2014: Russia is slapped with sanctions for annexing the Crimea, which leads Russian space chief Rogozin to say “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the ISS using a trampoline.” (Rogozin has an affinity for comparing rocketry with random inanimate objects)
May 2020: SpaceX Crew Dragon sends 2 astronauts to space. It’s the first American-launched crew in nearly a decade. After the launch, Musk quips that “the trampoline is working” (it should be noted that Rogozin congratulated NASA and Musk)
December 2020: On Facebook, Rogozin posts a photo of his team working in Russia’s frigid weather and takes a swipe at SpaceX: “This is not Boca Chica [Texas, where SpaceX launches]. This is Yakutia [Russia], and in winter. Temperature is minus 52°. I wonder if gentle SpaceX is able to work in such conditions?”
September 2021: Despite the jabs, the space industry has served as a point of co-operation for the world. The ISS has hosted astronauts from 19 countries. Further, US and Russia/Soviet Union have co-operated on the ISS since 1975. As recently as last September, Rogozin actually invited Musk to Russia to “be a guest of my family” and discuss “the universe, extraterrestrial life” while drinking tea and that he “already set the teakettle on heat.”
Here’s Musk — literally 6 months ago — asking Rogozin “what is your favorite tea?”
According to CNN, NASA paid the Russian space agency $4B between 2011 to 2019. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an operational SpaceX would have costed Roscosmos “billions in revenue” (based on the global clampdown of Russia’s economy, it’s definitely many multiples of that now).
With the space economy projected to reach $1.4T by 2030, it can not be overstated how important it is for America and the world to have SpaceX sending people and cargo to orbit.
After all that, it’s time to update the SpaceX IMDB logline: “Successful entrepreneur takes a multi-million dollar windfall to Russia in hopes of buying missiles, so he can launch mice to Mars. Russian officials tell him to beat it, so he creates cutting edge trampolines and broomsticks.”
How is Starlink working in Ukraine?
Ukraine isn’t the first time Elon jumped into an international crisis.
2018: There was the Thailand Cave incident, when Musk offered to make a mini-sub (never used) and, later, got into a spat with one of the scuba divers that saved the trapped boys (Musk called him “pedo guy”).
2020: At the start of COVID, Musk said Tesla would make ventilators. In the end, he sent CPAP machines made from another manufacturer (while not Tesla ventilators, the machines were helpful).
Haters love referencing these two examples whenever Elon offers an opinion or form of assistance. Following the SpaceX-Ukraine partnership, Elon Derangement Syndrome was on full tilt. Here are some choice Twitter responses to the news:
“Guys, use some critical thinking before you praise this.
A. Starlink doesn’t work
B. Do you really think you can get a satellite service installation and modem in the middle of a war?
If this did anything, I’d praise it. It’s marketing.”
“As always, Elon Musk is pulling a useless PR stunt for his idiot fanboys with no critical thinking skills. He’s never seen a crisis he wouldn’t try to meme into some money to line his pockets.”
“Before you cheer on Elon Musk too much…Ukrainians need compatible receivers to actually make any use of his Starlink internet system. He claims he’s delivering terminals to them, but let’s wait and see. This sounds like yet another empty self-promotion stunt.”
What I’d note is this: 1) Ukraine’s Vice PM asked Elon for Starlink; and 2) unlike the other incidents, satellite internet communication is DIRECTLY in the wheelhouse for SpaceX and Elon. (Recode notes that SpaceX previously sent Starlink dishes — called Dishys — to Tonga after a volcano took out the island’s internet).
Now, there are certainly other questions worth asking about Starlink but the notion that this was a “PR stunt” is ridiculous (and, as you can imagine, none of the most vocal haters backtracked when the Starlink Dishys arrived and Ukraine users reported that they were working).
So, what are the legit questions?
What is the state of Ukraine’s internet? According The Guardian, “Ukraine has a diverse internet infrastructure with few choke points – which means it’s difficult to switch off the country and there’s no centralised kill switch. If an invading nation desired to switch off Ukraine’s internet, this would really be a matter of physically entering internet exchange points and data centres and taking over that infrastructure. And it certainly can’t be done remotely by severing a connection with, say, Russia.”
Is Starlink a potential risk? There is concern that the Russian military can triangulate Starlink’s satellite signal and target users. Elon recommends turning “on Starlink only when needed” and to “place [the] antenna as far away from people as possible” and to place “light camouflage” on it.
The risk of using Starlink certainly has to be weighed vs. the need for comms. If Ukraine internet does get cut, clearly that trade-off calculation needs to be made. Having said that, OODA — a tech consultancy — writes that Starlink has a very narrow beam that requires “lots of planning and probably a very high altitude surveillance aircraft or a satellite” to track. Russian can probably do it, but they also have to make cost-benefit analyses, especially if there are hundreds of Starlink Dishys. Many of the users would be low-value “targets”, who can also move the equipment around and place them hundreds of meters away from their physical location.
Can Russia take down Starlink? To mitigate such a threat, Elon tweeted that “SpaceX reprioritized to cyber defense & overcoming signal jamming. Will cause slight delays in Starship & Starlink V2.”
More broadly, Starlink offers internet access to anyone that has the terminal. It’s censorship-resistant internet that is difficult for local authorities to block.
Musk previously said that regulators who wanted to stop Starlink could “shake their fist at the sky” and — last night — said that he would not censor anyone using the service:
SpaceX as a national security asset
Here was a great tweet from Alec Stapp, referencing Elon’s actions with SpaceX since the Ukraine-Russia conflict started: “People have been underrating how much of a strategic national asset SpaceX is for the United States”.
Earlier, we discussed the importance of SpaceX establishing a reliable American-led launch program.
SpaceX isn’t just reliable, though. It is technologically heads and shoulders above the competition. Stapp writes in an article for City Journal that the new re-usable SpaceX super-heavy Starship can increase the low-earth-orbit (LEO) payload from “500 tons per year to 500 tons per week”.
A re-usable rocket is obviously cheaper than a rocket that can…err…only be used once (and falls in the ocean). As a result, launch costs “are predicted to drop as low as $50 per kilogram” which is ~100x lower than today.
The most visible SpaceX payload right now is satellites, for the Starlink internet system. There are currently 2k+ in orbit with thousands more in the docket.
As we’re seeing with the Ukraine crisis, a resilient internet system is clearly a national security priority (a future transition to more drone-based aerial warfare will also rely on a robust satellite internet system).1
As the Payload space newsletter points out, OneWeb — a Starlink competitor — recently had to cancel a Russia-based launch of its satellites due to the fallout from global sanctions.
Even aside from Starlink, SpaceX’s manufacturing ability is a huge advantage. As Zack Kanter puts it, “perhaps the most valuable capability in war is the ability to manufacture mass quantities of complex machines in short order. SpaceX and Tesla are giant leaps forward.”
Elon seems to agree: on the Dan Carlin Hardcore History podcast, he says “engineering is underrated in its impact on the outcome of wars”.
More reading: I previously wrote a thread on SpaceX’s engineering process.
Elon shared this thought on the summary:
On Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, Musk says “There’s no question; if you want a more effective fighter – bomber – tank, the best thing to do is take the pilot out of it at this point”. Based on tech trends — and not his own preference — he believe AI-powered drones will be the future of warfare.