SpaceX CEO Elon Musk attempted to deflect a reporter’s question during a NASA press conference yesterday, saying “move on.”
The NASA press conference was announcing the contract winners for concepts to land astronauts on the Moon in 2024. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics will receive millions from NASA to develop lunar lander concepts for the Artemis program. During the question period, Marina Koren, a staff writer at The Atlantic, asked NASA chief Jim Bridenstine about Musk’s recent controversial comments on covid-19. As Koren noted afterward in a tweet, her question was rudely interrupted by Musk, who said, “wrong press conference, move on.”
During a telecon, I asked Jim Bridenstine about Elon Musk's recent opinions on COVID-19. A voice on the line said, "wrong press conference. Move on." I'm told it was Elon.
NASA just picked Starship to contribute important technology to the agency's moon return. This is relevant.
— Marina Koren (@marinakoren) April 30, 2020
Koren’s question was in regards to recent Musk tweets, including one declaring “FREE AMERICA NOW,” a Trumpian response to ongoing social distancing measures across much of the United States. Musk has also expressed doubt about the seriousness of the coronavirus, which has killed over 60,000 people in the U.S. Given that NASA just awarded SpaceX a handsome new $US135 ($207) million contract for Starship, Koren believed her question was “relevant,” as she put it.
Koren is right, of course. Musk’s behaviour has previously caused problems for NASA, which had to pay $US5 ($8) million for a safety review after Musk was filmed smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Furthermore, the pandemic is causing major disruptions to businesses and supply chains, which could cause delays at SpaceX, among the other bidders and their partners. Covid-19 could also cause budgetary disruptions, as Congress still needs to approve a NASA request submitted this past February, as SpaceNews reports. NASA has asked for more money, given its mandate to return to the Moon by 2024.
But the most galling thing about Musk’s butt-in is that NASA is a taxpayer-funded government agency, and it’s completely inappropriate for the CEO of a private company to try to deflect a journalist’s question to a public servant.
Bridenstine did go on to address Koren’s question, saying the space agency is taking the covid-19 outbreak “very seriously,” as CNBC reported. “We’ve had a number of people infected by it and, in fact, we’ve lost lives because of it at the agency,” Bridenstine said.
The episode highlights a challenge of NASA’s strategy of relying on private partners for crewed space missions. The space agency has exposed itself to the whims and foibles of executives, whether it be Musk or the equally controversial Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos, who, as head of Amazon, is continually in labour disputes with workers.
Given horrific unemployment figures and the potential for a prolonged recession, Congress may have to reallocate funds accordingly, at the expense of a 2024 mission to the Moon. So, like so many other things right now, the pandemic is throwing Artemis timelines into doubt. As I recently reported, rushing this mission could be a recipe for disaster.