After he launched his giant new rocket into space last week, Elon Musk said he was spoiling for a good race in space. This week, he learned his rivals were up for the challenge, even when it involves such terrestrial trivialities as a cocktail party.
Ahead of the second meeting of the White House’s National Space Council in Florida next week, a consortium of upstart entrepreneurial companies known as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which includes SpaceX, decided to host a reception for members of the council, who just happen to be some of the most powerful players in Washington. Headed by Vice President Pence, the policymaking council is made up of the secretaries of State, Commerce, Treasury, Transportation and Defense and other top government officials.
But when the groups representing some of the more traditional space contractors, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, caught wind of the party, they complained to the White House, which agreed that they, too, should host the reception.
The ultimate party crash?
More like “we wanted to make sure the entirety of the industry was represented to the council and not just a subset,” said one industry official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
As a result, what started as a simple soiree has ballooned into a full-on convocation, according to five industry and government officials who discussed the back and forth, agreeing to speak only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Some history: Once derided as an “ankle-biter” by its competitors, SpaceX, and the entrepreneurial industry it has helped spawn, has emerged as a disruptive force that has forced the space industry establishment to improvise and adapt. SpaceX currently has contracts worth several billion dollars to fly cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station. And it is threatening the lock that the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing, has long had over the lucrative national security market.
Such is the intensity of their rivalry that when industry veterans heard that SpaceX and its ilk in the Commercial Spaceflight Federation planned to host an low-key gathering with the vice president and others ahead of the Space Council meeting, they launched an all-out lobbying blitz insisting they be included.
“It charged up a lot of groups when it was a CSF-only thing,” one official said.
After taking their complaints were conveyed to the Space Council, the party, to be held Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, grew in size and is now being hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
In a statement, Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, formally welcomed the new co-hosts, saying the reception will be an “inclusive event that celebrates the achievements and innovations of the American space industry.” He said his group looks “forward to the work the Vice President and the Council are doing to help move America forward on our shared goals and dreams that space offers. We are partnering on this event with our association colleagues to showcase the best and brightest aspects of American ingenuity.”
As the groups were squabbling behind the scenes over who should host the reception, Musk was antagonizing Tory Bruno, chief executive of the rival United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
On Twitter, Musk went after the cost of his competitor’s rocket, saying the price was more than $400 million for a launch of ULA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, far greater than his Falcon Heavy rocket.
Bruno responded by saying that the cost was actually $350 million, and that his company was developing another rocket, known as Vulcan, which ULA has said will be even more competitive when it starts flying.
But Musk said he didn’t think the rocket would be certified by the Air Force to be able to launch Pentagon missions any time soon.
“I will seriously eat my hat with a side of mustard if that rocket flies a national security spacecraft before 2023,” he wrote on Twitter.
The next day, Bruno tweeted a picture of a ULA-logoed lunchbox and a baseball cap.