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Commentary: Time to end the Elon Musk taxpayer gravy train

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During a recent hearing before the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, SpaceX announced its intention to break with NASA policy and seek new government funding to fulfill Elon Musk’s dream of living on planet Mars. With this announcement, they once again flaunted their belief that the rules everyone else is expected to play by don’t really apply to Musk or any of his companies.

NASA has undergone a big transformation over the last decade by partnering with private companies to transport cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX has been a big part of this program and is a beneficiary of much of the billions of dollars of taxpayer funding. But when it comes to deep space explorations, NASA has drawn a line and made it clear that NASA alone intends to build the rockets to advance the program. In the words of then NASA administrator, Charles Bolden,“We believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles,”

Apparently, Bolden has forgotten that Elon Musk is not just any normal person. He is a master of using other people’s money to build his dream companies while lining his own pockets. He has amassed a multi-billion dollar fortune by creating companies like Tesla Motors, Inc., SolarCity Corp., and SpaceX with the help of billions in government subsidies.

It’s a pretty good deal for Musk: we the taxpayers put up the long-shot start-up money, and he keeps all the profits. According to research compiled by  the Los Angeles Times, by mid-2015 Musk had already received almost $5 billion in government funding with very little to show for it. Without the government subsidizing Musk’s product, very few people would be able to afford to buy them and his companies would undoubtedly fail.

While testifying  at the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, SpaceX’s Senior Vice President for Global Business and Government Affairs, Tim Hughes, stated: "The principles applied in past programs for low Earth orbit capability can and should be applied to deep space exploration.”  Hughes wants the government to fund a public-private partnership that will be developed “in parallel” to NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft for deep space exploration. So in other words, SpaceX would like some more of our money so that they can compete against us.

SpaceX has come looking for more government money but offers no plan as to how they will build a better rocket that will be successful in deep space. Without a well-designed plan, how can Musk prove that he can handle the challenge of “deep space” missions? This point becomes especially relevant when considering his current struggles with simpler government-funded projects, where he blew up tens of millions of dollars worth of government-funded cargo and delayed NASA missions years into the future. A trip into deep space is far more complicated compared to a trip to the International Space Station.

Before we give Musk another hand-out, shouldn’t we at least be given a detailed plan for all his proposals -- one that factors in reliability and planning, not just sticker price and the “cool factor” of working with Elon Musk? The closest Musk has come to a “Plan” was at his “Making Humans a Multi-planetary Species” presentation at a June 2016 International Astronautical Congress conference when he told his doubters: “That’s the game plan — approximately 2024 to launch the first of the Mars colonial transport systems with people.”  So, a mere seven years from now he plans to have people on Mars? Okay, great, but how?

When you add up the $5 billion the U.S. taxpayers have already thrown into the pot to help Musk get SpaceX off the ground and looking at the company’s projected market share  for 2018, one has to wonder when enough is enough. At some point, SpaceX needs to start footing their own bill if they want to expand into deep space to satisfy their founder’s ambition to die on planet Mars.

Peter Weyrich is a longtime conservative activist who has worked for a variety of pro-free market organizations including the Free Congress Foundation and Coalitions for America.

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