The Influence Industry
SpaceX CEO Musk comes to Washington to lobby for Obama's NASA strategy
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 10:44 PM
Elon Musk is an entrepreneur of the technology age: He made millions selling PayPal, builds space rockets and electric sports cars for a living, and provides regular fodder for tabloids with his rocky personal life.
Now the flamboyant Californian has come to Washington.
Musk, the chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, has emerged as one of the most prominent backers of President Obama's controversial plan to increase the role of commercial space companies at NASA. The plan could benefit companies such as SpaceX because it calls for relying on private firms for transportation to the international space station and other low-orbit missions.
The plan has sparked an intensive lobbying campaign by old-line space contractors and political opposition from both sides of the aisle. The battle is expected to come to a head soon as lawmakers attempt to reach a compromise.
Musk, a native of South Africa, has spent much of this year meeting with receptive members of Congress, urging supporters to lobby lawmakers and pointedly criticizing key Republicans for opposing Obama's plan. He also has increased the pace of his federal campaign contributions.
Since 2003, Musk has given about $300,000 to federal candidates, divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, according to records compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In the first six months of 2010, however, Musk donated nearly $71,000 to Democrats, compared with less than $7,000 to Republicans from him or his company's PAC, the data show.
During a recent interview, Musk bristled at the notion - increasingly asserted by Republican detractors - that he has become a Democratic partisan. After all, he's an avid supporter of Republican Meg Whitman, the California gubernatorial candidate who oversaw the acquisition of PayPal when she headed eBay.
But Musk also acknowledged that he is "a fan of Obama," calling him "a good president" and "a big proponent of competition." He said he has been disappointed in GOP opposition to the administration's NASA plans.
Musk complained publicly that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) refused to meet with him, and he accused Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) of "trying to hurt a Texas company," since SpaceX tests rockets in her state. In July, he urged supporters to lobby against a House NASA bill gutting Obama's proposals, calling it "the sort of senseless pork politics that has driven our national debt to the point where our economy can barely service it."
Such off-the-cuff commentary has earned Musk greater attention - and greater criticism - than his relatively small space company might otherwise attract. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion NASA cargo contract and successfully launched a next-generation rocket, Falcon 9, into orbit in June. Tesla has also received federal aid, including $465 million in low-interest loans approved during the Bush administration.
His personal life only adds to the spectacle. Gossip columnists have chronicled Musk's bitter divorce from his estranged wife and his new romance with British actress Talulah Riley. His business biography served as an inspiration for Tony Stark, the inventor-tycoon played by Robert Downey Jr. in the "Iron Man" movies. (The second film includes a cameo by Musk playing himself.)
John M. Logsdon, who was the longtime director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said Musk "doesn't mind making himself the poster child" because of his self-confidence and ambition. But, he added, it's not clear how much Musk has helped Obama's cause.