The most recent launch of a rocket by Elon Musk’s spacecraft manufacturing company SpaceX ended dramatically on Thursday, as the vehicle touted as the most powerful rocket ever built went up in flames just off the coast of Texas. Despite being heralded as a “successful failure”, SpaceX’s escapades show the frivolous wastefulness of the capitalist class, who grow fat on government handouts, while the standard of living for workers only continues to worsen.
Elon Musk and SpaceX management certainly tried to dull the public’s expectations in advance of the launch of their new ‘Starship’ rocket. Earlier that week, Musk downplayed the chances of success and – setting the bar even lower – SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told a conference that “the real goal is to not blow up the launch pad.”
In the end, the rocket did destroy the launch pad, but this was only the beginning of the troubles for the rocket, which went on to explode just four minutes into its flight. Having travelled a grand total of 25 miles – less than half its intended peak altitude – Starship experienced “multiple” engine failures and burst into flames, before exploding and tumbling into the sea.
Costing $3 billion to develop and standing thirty metres taller than the Statue of Liberty, Starship quickly went down in history as the world’s largest and most expensive firework.
Fallout from the botched mission had wide-ranging consequences. Particulate clouds whipped up by the rocket spread for miles, coating nearby towns. Locals in the area shared photos on social media of their homes, cars and schools covered in sand and dust. The US Federal Aviation Administration also noted that the debris from the launch is likely to disrupt the nesting habitats of a number of endangered birds and cause significant environmental damage in the region.
Getting reports from multiple people now of “particulates” raining down in areas of Port Isabel after the nearby explosion of the SpaceX rocket stack Starship/Superheavy, 4 minutes after liftoff this morning from Boca Chica in the Rio Grande Valley. pic.twitter.com/Vb9ritd7JE— Pablo De La Rosa (@pblodlr) April 20, 2023
One small step for Musk
The evident failure of the launch, however, is of no concern to SpaceX. Garrett Reisman, a senior adviser to the company, described the explosion as “a classical SpaceX successful failure.”
This strategy – which the New York Times describes in a tragicomic manner as “fail fast, but learn faster” – ostensibly allows SpaceX to develop rockets sooner by finding out their flaws through repeated testing, rather than waiting longer to build a rocket that actually functions. In short, this is a justification for SpaceX to cut corners and use cheaper and simpler designs than traditional NASA rockets.
Starship’s explosive launch was only the most recent incident in a long list of “successful” failures. Late last year, a static firing test of the same design resulted in the rocket’s engines exploding. Prior to that, out of five tests of prototypes of Starship’s top half, four finished their brief 6-mile flight by crashing in flames.
Reisman went on to describe the benefits of SpaceX’s cavalier strategy as the “embracing of failure when the consequences of failure are low… Even though that rocket costs a lot of money, what really costs a lot of money are people’s salaries.” Better to “successfully fail” than employ “a large team working for years and years and years trying to get it perfect before you even try it.”
Here we see the fundamental logic of Elon Musk and his team. $3 billion sounds like a lot to develop a rocket that explodes after four minutes, but it’s nothing compared to actually having to pay your workers to do the job properly.
It’s the same logic as we see in all Musk’s business operations, like the recent cut of workers’ pay at Tesla’s factory in Shanghai, less than two months after a worker was killed in an accident on the factory floor. Management specifically mentioned the ‘safety incident’ as the cause of the pay cut.
“With great risk comes great reward”
While traditional aerospace organisations – such as NASA – tend to avoid the “successful failure” method, its appeal to the likes of Elon Musk is clear. In the words of former Democratic senator and current NASA administrator Bill Nelson, who congratulated SpaceX on their launch, “with great risk comes great reward.” These rewards are the huge amounts of state money poured into SpaceX. The risks lie wholly with the US government, with the dubious prospect of getting much in exchange for its largesse.
As the main contractor for SpaceX, the US government has given the company over $15.3 billion worth of contracts since 2003. Starship itself was the product of a $3 billion contract handed to Musk by NASA in 2021. It was stated plainly at the time that SpaceX was picked over its rivals, due to NASA’s belief that Starship would put an astronaut on the moon by 2024.
While this goal was ambitious, Starship’s recent failure to even reach 25 miles off the ground puts the likelihood of a moon landing next year into question. What is clear, however, is that Elon Musk’s desire to get Starship operational as soon as possible has less to do with a passionate desire to advance science and more to do with a passionate desire for more government contracts.
These contracts are especially valuable for SpaceX at a time when private investment in the space industry is taking a severe hit. A recent report noted that investment into US spacefaring companies dropped 53 percent in the first three months of this year, making it the lowest funded quarter for the industry since 2015.
More broadly, the report noted that of the more than 100 US companies raising funds to launch rockets into space over the past decade, only two are currently operational. One of these is SpaceX, which has only survived after being saved from bankruptcy by NASA contracts. Much of the ‘space race’ of the last decade has been a speculative bubble, just like the crypto fad, and inflated tech stock, including Tesla stock, all of which have served to boost Musk’s obscene wealth without producing much of any great utility in the process.
With characteristic hypocrisy, Elon Musk has on multiple occasions spoken out against state subsidies and – shortly after receiving the Starship contract in 2021 – described the US government as a poor “steward of capital”.
An emerald in the rough
These are certainly trying times for state-funded space companies whose rockets keep exploding, but spare a thought for the man behind the failures.
The day after Starship’s calamitous voyage, it was reported that Elon Musk’s net worth dropped a total of $12.6 billion. This came as a combination of the rocket explosion, a disappointing first quarter result for Tesla and ongoing uncertainty over Twitter’s ‘Blue Tick’ system, caused havoc in the stock market for Musk’s flagship companies.
Readers needn’t shed any tears, however, as the loss of four Starships-worth of stock market value has not made much of a dent in Musk’s $163.9 billion net worth.
Another embarrassment came this week, however, after Musk offered via Twitter to pay one million Dogecoin – or $79,000 at time of writing – to anyone who could prove that he had inherited his wealth from a family-owned emerald mine in Zambia, only for the bounty to be claimed by his own father.
More than Starship, Elon Musk himself is the textbook definition of a “successful failure”. Propped up by inherited wealth and the subsidies of state coffers, like many-a-capitalist, Musk continues to grow rich whilst contributing nothing of worth to society. Incompetence, greed, dishonesty and carelessness – all the attributes of Musk make him a fitting poster boy for the capitalist class in this age of capitalism’s decline.