Elon Musk Wants to Move Fast and Break Space

At the moment, the Starlink project has at least 1,350 satellites in orbit. There’s talk of building up to 12,000 small satellites for its broadband network (in six years, the company says, the number could be as high as 42,000). OneWeb, a British company, has fewer than 150 satellites in space right now, with its final network projected to cap out around 650. Reports about Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper anticipate that it will have more than 3,000 satellites. The Canadian operator Telesat has plans for 300. Russia and China may be working on their own satellite constellations, while an EU official told The Wall Street Journal that developing a ring of internet-beaming satellites was “a strategic priority.”

It’s not clear, however, if all of this competition—both between profit-hungry corporations and power-hungry nation-states—will benefit the public, especially when there is potentially more to be gained by building out terrestrial internet infrastructure. Still, a monopoly managed by a global consortium, much like the internet itself, would guarantee more international cooperation, a less crowded sky, and likely a fairer deal for consumers. It would also help mitigate the costs of failure. Last year, three different satellite communications providers went bankrupt in three months. One of them was OneWeb, which received significant investment from SoftBank, a funder of WeWork, Uber, and other money-losing startups (OneWeb has since found new investors). One of the industry’s worst failures was Iridium, a $5 billion satellite network that filed for bankruptcy in 1999. It’s been resurrected in the meantime—SpaceX even launched some of its satellites—but remains unprofitable.

In October, Starlink launched a test run of its internet service, calling it a “Better Than Nothing Beta.” While the negative consequences of patchy internet service may be mild for customers who sign up for this trial, this cavalier approach—with a blasé attitude toward safety and mechanical failure—can be found throughout Elon Musk’s empire. (SpaceX and Tesla did not respond to questions about their safety records before publication.) Just last week, a Tesla apparently engaged in self-driving mode—or autopilot, as the company has also called it—crashed with two passengers inside, killing them both in a horrific inferno that took four hours and 32,000 gallons of water to extinguish. (In an echo of the EU/Starlink near miss, firefighters had to call Tesla for help on putting out a lithium battery fire.) While the passengers were clearly acting irresponsibly—no one was behind the wheel to take over in an emergency, as Tesla advises—the mere fact that Tesla has made this feature widely available encourages customers to put their faith, and their lives, in an unproven, unregulated technology.

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