In the latest chapter of a long-running space spat, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took aim at his billionaire rival Jeff Bezos today with a barrage of double entendres that were delivered from the stage at this week’s Code Conference.
The jests he shared with journalist Kara Swisher, host of the Beverly Hills event, focused on the phallic shape of the New Shepard suborbital rocket ship built by Blue Origin, Bezos’ space venture.
“It could be a different shape, potentially,” Musk noted.
“Could you explain from a technological point of view why it’s that shape?” Swisher asked.
“If you are only doing suborbital, then your rocket can be shorter, yes,” Musk joked.
More seriously, Musk said Bezos and Blue Origin should spend less time contesting NASA’s $2.9 billion award to SpaceX for a Starship lunar lander and more time getting the company’s New Glenn rocket to orbit. New Glenn’s first launch is currently scheduled for late 2022.
“You cannot sue your way to the moon, no matter how good your lawyers are,” he said. When Swisher asked whether Musk ever talked with Bezos about the dispute, he said, “Not verbally … just subtweets.”
Responding to Musk’s comments, an Amazon spokesperson passed along a list detailing challenges that SpaceX has made to decisions on topics ranging from Air Force awards for launch services to the Federal Communications Commission’s satellite policies.
“SpaceX has a long track record of suing the U.S. government on procurement matters and protesting various governmental decisions,” the spokesperson said in an email. “It is difficult to reconcile that historical record with their recent position on others filing similar actions.”
— Vox Media (@voxmedia) September 29, 2021
A decision on Blue Origin’s lunar lander lawsuit is expected in federal court by early November.
NASA documents obtained by The Verge through a Freedom of Intormation Act request lay out some aspects of the space agency’s defense of its decision to award funding to SpaceX alone and not to other would-be providers, such as Blue Origin. The documents note that NASA was working with a budget constrained by Congress and had no obligation to negotiate with Blue Origin’s team over its $5.9 billion bid.
“Blue Origin made a bet and it lost,” The Verge quotes the documents as saying.
NASA’s award to SpaceX has been suspended due to the legal wrangling, but SpaceX is moving ahead with its overall Starship development and testing effort.
Despite the rivalry, Musk said it’s a good thing for Bezos and other billionaires — including Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and Musk himself — to be spending money on opening up the space frontier.
“It doesn’t have to be on the top of your ‘thank you’ list, but I’m just saying that when there’s new technology, it is necessarily expensive until you can refine the design and you can scale things up, and then you can make it more affordable,” he said.
Musk’s hourlong chat at this week’s conference touched upon some of his favorite subjects. Here’s a sampling:
Swisher asked about the potential for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband telecom constellation to interfere with astronomical observations. “Maybe a few sort of amateur astronomers are unhappy, but the professional ones are satisfied that we are taking reasonable steps to ensure that we are not standing in the way of science,” Musk said. (SpaceX has been working with astronomers to reduce the impact of Starlink satellites, which are built in Redmond, Wash.; nevertheless, professional astronomers are among Starlink’s critics.)
In that context, Musk referred to the possibility of using SpaceX’s Starship to deploy super space telescopes that could have “10 times the resolution of the Hubble [Space Telescope], which would be great for science.” He said SpaceX was working with Berkeley astronomer Saul Perlmutter on a space telescope project. (We’ve reached out to Perlmutter and will update this report with anything we hear back.)
In the wake of suborbital trips taken by Bezos and Branson, Swisher asked whether Musk himself would like to go to space. “I suppose I will at some point, but my goal is not to send myself,” Musk replied, “My goal is to open up space for humanity and ultimately set us on a path to becoming a spacefaring civilization and a multiplanet species.”
When Swisher asked about a recent investigative report from ProPublica that pegged Musk’s “true tax rate” at 3.27%, Musk said that the report was “misleading” and that his top marginal tax rate was 53%. He acknowledged that there was a year when he paid “basically zero” income tax (2018, according to ProPublica), but said that was because he had overpaid his taxes in the previous year.
Based on today’s remarks, it doesn’t sound as if President Joe Biden is on Musk’s Christmas card list. Musk complained about Tesla not being invited to a White House event focusing on electric vehicles last month. “Does this sound maybe a little biased or something?” Musk asked. “So, you know, just not the friendliest administration. Seems to be controlled by the unions, as far as I can tell.” When Swisher asked Musk if he’d like to be president, he answered, “I would not want to be president at all. Sounds like no fun.”
In response to a question from the audience about DMT, a drug that has popped up in a couple of Musk’s tweets, he said, “I think generally people should be open to psychedelics. … A lot of people making laws are kind of from a different era. As the new generation gets into political power, I think we will see greater receptivity to the benefits of psychedelics.”
After chatting about children (Musk has six and Swisher has three) Musk said “a lot of people think that there’s too many people on the planet, but I think there’s in fact too few, and that possibly the single greatest risk to human civilization is the rapidly diminishing [population] growth rate.” Later, Musk said he now sees the potential for artificial intelligence to get out of control as the second-biggest threat facing humanity.
Update for 2:15 p.m. PT Sept. 29: We’ve updated this report with Amazon’s response to Musk’s comments and The Verge’s report about NASA legal documents relating to Blue Origin’s lunar lander lawsuit. In response to Amazon’s response, Musk tweeted this:
SpaceX has sued to be *allowed* to compete, BO is suing to stop competition
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 29, 2021
For what it’s worth, Blue Origin has argued that it’s protesting NASA’s lunar lander award because the competition was not conducted fairly.
“The agency’s failure to enter into discussions with all offerors and the agency’s award of a contract to an unacceptable proposal violated the solicitation’s ground rules for the competition and lacked a rational basis,” attorneys for the Blue Origin team wrote in their complaint.
It’ll be up to the federal court to determine the validity of the arguments.