President Barack Obama is headed for California in search of campaign cash for 2012. One of the events he will be attending is an exclusive $38,500 a plate dinner that will have as a guest, among other luminaries, SpaceX's Elon Musk.
Musk has every reason to be appreciative of President Obama, as SpaceX has recently been the recipient of $75 million under a program by NASA that is designed to encourage the development of commercial space craft.
The Elon Musk/Barack Obama alliance has been one of the most interesting business/political relationships of this century. Up until the 2008 campaign cycle, Musk had given roughly equal amounts of campaign contributions to Democratic and Republican candidates and campaign committees. But during the recent 2010 cycle, Musk gave the vast majority of his campaign cash to Democrats.
Musk had been the recipient of government largess during the Bush administration. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program, which awarded SpaceX money to develop its commercial space craft, is a George W. Bush-era project. But the Obama administration has doubled down on commercial space, eliminating the Constellation program that would have created a public option in the form of the Ares 1 launcher, and going all in for companies like SpaceX. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract to deliver cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station with his Dragon space craft to be launched on a Falcon 9 once the system becomes operational.
When President Obama traveled to the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, to deliver his space policy speech, he met with Musk and viewed the Falcon 9 then on the launch pad. Obama went on to praise commercial space companies like Musk's and to disdain the Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon.
Thus it can be said that the Musk/Obama partnership has been a very profitable one for both parties. Obama has funneled tens of millions of dollars, with much more promised, to Musk's companies. Musk has given tens of thousands to Democrats and Democratic causes, with more to follow.
This shift toward Democrats contains great peril for Musk, however. The House has been taken over by Republicans, many of whom take a dim view toward what they see as crony capitalism going on in commercial space. Next year, chances are, the Senate will go Republican as well. Obama himself may be replaced by a Republican.
In that case, Musk may find himself without many political allies in Washington. Last year, when Republicans balked at giving more subsidies to companies like SpaceX, Musk angrily criticized them and accused them of favor NASA "pork" over subsidies to his company. Those same Republicans may soon have complete control over the future of Musk and SpaceX. Memories are very long in the political world.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
- President Barack Obama
- Kennedy Space Center
- the Bush administration
- crony capitalism