Upstart startup rocket company SpaceX, helmed and bankrolled by renowned internet nerdwealth tycoon Elon Musk, is already taking NASA business away from the established American rocketry industry. Musk now appears to be targeting the potentially much bigger market for launching secret US spy satellites.
In a statement issued yesterday, SpaceX announced that it would open a new office in Chantilly, Virginia, "to serve customers looking for reliable, affordable launch solutions". The statement adds:
The community is home to some of the world's leading internet and high-tech companies ...
The Chantilly office is expected to see similar rapid growth as our government and commercial customer base continues to expand.
“We are excited to open offices in Chantilly,” says Musk. “It will provide us with valuable access to important customers and an exceptional talent pool as we continue to grow.”
There are of course many prominent tech firms to be found in Virginia. But it seems rather more significant that the headquarters of the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Reconnaissance Operations Center are both located in Chantilly. The NRO, a joint operation of the US military and intelligence services, is in charge of the nation's huge fleet of surveillance satellites.
The United States government declines to publish any details of its various "black" budgets, from which the NRO's massive secret space programme draws its funds. However it seems quite reasonable to suppose that the black space programme, including the NRO and other agencies, might easily dispose of a budget in the order $25bn+ – conceivably more. By contrast, NASA's entire budget, much of which is spent maintaining the space agency's large staff and extensive facilities across the USA rather than on space operations, amounts to just over $18bn in total.
It's impossible to know for sure, but it seems very likely that in fact the US secret space programme provides a much more lucrative market for SpaceX than NASA ever can – and that Musk's opening of an office around the corner from NRO headquarters has a lot more to do with that than it does with any "internet companies" in the area.
Musk and SpaceX are already on a collision course with Boeing, Lockheed and the rest of the established rocket and aerospace giants of the USA. The new company plainly has aspirations to build the planned new heavy-lift NASA rocket which will take astronauts to the asteroids and Mars from 2015 – a thing which evidently won't sit well with the big boys.
Now it would seem that Musk intends trying to take away some of their perhaps still-more-lucrative secret spysat revenue as well. That will certainly upset the aerospace titans.
It might also alter Musk's public image somewhat, as well. Thus far, apart from those who've chosen to focus on his personal life, he's tended to be seen as a sort of super-geek hero or even saint (Wired UK launch issue): he's best known for his internet-made fortune, his famous electric car company Tesla Motors, and his personal goal of making space travel much more available.
But cosying up to the shadowy generals and spooks of the NRO and helping to launch their sometimes rather worrying (and typically incredibly expensive) all-seeing, terrorist-hunting, war-fighting surveillance spy eyes into the sky – that's something of a different matter, perhaps. The internet gurus and digital mavens who revere Musk as a modern-age exemplar for us all may find this latest move a trifle upsetting. ®