On Oct. 31, the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command announced that of its 21 launches planned for fiscal year 2024, Elon Musk’s SpaceX would deliver 10 of them for a total of $1.23 billion. SpaceX’s launches will include the orbital delivery of GPS satellites, spy satellites and a new infrared system to provide early warning of ballistic missile launches.
Just over two weeks later, on Nov. 15, Musk responded to a post on the social media platform X arguing that Jewish communities in the United States have invited harm upon themselves by welcoming refugees from abroad. In a concise endorsement of the clumsily articulated conspiracy theory, Musk replied, “You have said the actual truth.” His post was still up as of Friday night.
The White House should pair such condemnations with action to curtail Musk’s control over vital national security infrastructure.
The poster to whom Musk was replying was offering a variation on the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, a belief held by some white supremacists that immigration to the U.S. is a nefarious plot designed to change the nation’s demographic character.
On Friday, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement, “We condemn this abhorrent promotion of Antisemitic and racist hate in the strongest terms, which runs against our core values as Americans.” If this were a one-off incident, condemnation might be an adequate response. But Musk has a pattern of hateful statements, and the White House should pair such condemnations with action to curtail Musk’s control over vital national security infrastructure.
Under Musk’s ownership, X has welcomed the kinds of extremists once banned from Twitter for violent and hateful rhetoric. Rather than confront the hate spread on his site with content moderation, Musk has lashed out at the watchdogs that have highlighted X’s pandering to antisemites. In September, Musk blamed a decline in ad revenue on the Anti-Defamation League, which he said was falsely accusing him and X of being antisemitic. Musk’s continued engagement with the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, from his explicit reinstatement of neo-Nazis previously banned by Twitter to his tolerance of slurs and hate speech, only renders the protests levied against him in September more relevant, and it suggests his expressed antisemitism is just one facet of a broader racism. (Musk himself has not addressed the controversy; Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X, said in a post that “X has also been extremely clear about our efforts to combat antisemitism and discrimination. There’s no place for it anywhere in the world.”)
In addition to the risks posed to personal and civic safety by promoting hate speech, Musk’s actions in recent years have raised myriad national security concerns. Musk has weakened guardrails against mis- and disinformation, which threatens public health, human rights and elections in the U.S. and globally. One of his first moves at Twitter was to decimate its security, democracy and human rights teams and to replace verified users with anyone willing to pay for a blue checkmark — the consequences of which we’re seeing now in the flood of explicitly violent and misleading content on the Israel-Gaza war that would have been removed under previous moderation regimes. He has engaged in the mass suspension of journalists’ X accounts in the U.S. and complied with authoritarians’ censorship requests in Turkey, India and beyond.
Musk’s reliance on Chinese investors and Saudi and Qatari government money, in addition to his relationships with Chinese and Russian authorities, have raised additional concerns. In September, reports surfaced that Musk had personally intervened in the operations of Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite communications company, to prevent its use by Ukraine. Asked about these reports on Sept. 11, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall emphasized that the Air Force was satisfied with SpaceX’s ability to deliver to the terms of its government contracts.
Musk and X appeared to have weathered his September assault on the ADL, but his Nov. 15 endorsement of the “great replacement” theory has reignited the question of what companies can afford to remain in business with him. IBM — itself a long-standing defense contractor with World War II–era ties to Nazis it would like to move beyond — announced on Nov. 16 that it had pulled its global advertising from X, specifically citing the company’s zero tolerance policy “for hate speech and discrimination.” Other companies and even governments, including Apple, Paramount, Lions Gate, Disney and the European Union, are following suit.
Congress could require that any company that receives launch contracts must go public.
While advertisers can walk away from X, SpaceX has made itself vital to today’s national security infrastructure. Getting satellites into orbit is expensive, and SpaceX has delivered lower costs while reliably getting objects into space. Prohibiting SpaceX from competing for future contracts would only trade out one billionaire-backed launch venture for another, as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin would be the most likely company to pick up the slack. Bezos does not have the same history of public antisemitic speech, but leaving space launches in the hands of unaccountable billionaires requires entrusting vital infrastructure to the moods and good graces of independently powerful individuals. Changing which billionaire has a personal and financial stake in rocket launches doesn’t eliminate the liability, it merely shifts it around.
Space launch is an expensive field for private startups, and one that the U.S. government has long outsourced to legacy contractors. One alternative to Musk’s personal intervention in the day-to-day operations of Starlink is government investment in and support for Starlink alternatives. Waiting for the market to diminish dependence on Musk — especially while he owns both communication constellations and launch companies — might not even work in the long term, and it doesn’t change the immediate fact that the Department of Defense is locked into a contract with an outspoken antisemite who has often worked at odds with U.S. security priorities.
In the immediate term, Congress needs to investigate whether Musk’s public comments present a breach of contract on ethical or reliability grounds. Congress could require that any company that receives launch contracts must go public, ensuring at least some mechanism for shareholders to oust a CEO should they become a public or security liability. Following the 2008 financial crash, the U.S. government became a majority shareholder of several companies deemed too big to fail after they received bailouts from the Treasury. This kind of stakeholder stewardship ended when the companies were brought public again, after a course correction in the public interest.
Ultimately, Congress should move to curtail the power and autonomy of the ultrawealthy (within constitutional limits, of course). While Musk’s constant posting is an obvious reminder that billionaires rarely, if ever, serve the public interest, the wealth he commands elevates him from a dull conspiracy theorist to a security liability who has no business continuing to draw from the public coffers.