When the CEOs of several major American companies met with the new leader of the free world two days ago, the conversation revolved around manufacturing restrictions and outsourcing — both in the crosshairs of President Trump’s agenda.

The new president, four days into his term on the day of the meeting, which included CEO Marilyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, suggested that companies amenable to tethering their manufacturing to the US would reap the benefits of an anti-tax, anti-regulatory administration, promising to cut “75 percent” of regulations — but noting a commensurate willingness to punish business who took their factories overseas with border tariffs. The ultimatum seems to have worked.

Musk, for his part, suggested that he was willing to work with Trump, and later suggested something bordering enthusiasm for the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of oil giant Exxon-Mobil. Musk, who agrees with the vast majority of scientists that changes in global climate are being triggered by human activity, posted several tweets praising Tillerson’s grasp of climate change, in what could be construed as a justification for so readily playing by the new administration’s rules.

And in another,

(It seems the Scottish futurist also agrees with the Secretary of State’s plan for reversing climate change, a truly radical approach that perhaps no one has thought of before: a carbon tax.)

While Musk may believe the Secretary of State supports a carbon tax and considers warming global temperatures a threat, it’s equally likely Tillerson’s boss does not. Trump has called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and has dismissed the science behind it on multiple occasions. Yesterday the president tied a de facto gag on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prohibiting them from sending press releases, giving interviews, or even tweeting. His pick for the new head of the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is a climate change denier currently suing the EPA, who according to residents has made no response to earthquakes attributed to horizontal drilling in that area — even though the state’s own website agrees that drilling is causing “increased seismic activity”.

(Interestingly, one of Trump’s two NASA advisors, Erik Noble, is a data scientist who worked from the Trump campaign but has received grants from the space agency for his work on climate change models. He was an adjunct professor of atmospheric studies at the University of Colorado. Perhaps Tillerson is not alone in his new views; The Downlink has reached out to Noble for an interview, but NASA doesn’t have his contact information.)

While Lockheed Martin found itself the target of the president’s ire during the transition over the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, little has been heard from him regarding Musk or his major companies, Tesla and SpaceX.

Opponents of the new administration will likely see the promises of carbon taxes from a Secretary of State (who does not pass or propose tax law and formerly ran an oil industry giant with a history of climate change denial and funding campaigns against policy reform) as an about face of sorts, and may attribute it to the business siren song of an anti-tax, anti-regulation environment.

Musk has resisted convention for everything from taking on private space exploration to how rockets are best fueled, from what powers our cars to how they are sold in the US — but start-ups inevitably take heavy tolls in navigating industry roadblocks, and the promise of an easy environment to navigate may well be alluring, particularly with respect to regulations.

Observers of his space program might point out that regulators have already been favorable enough to him to allow SpaceX to conduct internal investigations into the causes behind two of their Falcon 9 rocket explosions, one shortly after launch in June 2015 and another during an engine test on the launchpad just last September. To have two rockets explode little over a year apart, be permitted to self-investigate, and then to launch four months after the most recent explosion hardly smacks of “over regulation” —  particularly as the company is in contract with NASA to provide six taxi flights to and from the ISS, with the first crewed launch scheduled for May 2018. NASA has already begun to question the wisdom of contracting with a company so willing to disregard long-held rocket fueling safety protocols, which may have been a factor in at least one of the explosions. They are right to be concerned, especially when there’s a Dragon full of astronauts on top of the rocket.

While regulations should be as minimally burdensome as possible, they exist for a reason. We may well pull some launches away from the Russian Space Program, but perhaps we don’t need to quite emulate it at this point. (After all, igniting the Soyuz rocket engines still involves someone literally shoving a pyrotechnic charge mounted on a wooden board up the nozzle.) Simply making a thing here doesn’t make it better or safer: making it better or safer does.

Mr. Musk was contacted for comment on Twitter, but didn’t respond by press time.

OnInnovation Interview: Elon Musk(CC BY-ND 2.0) by OnInnovation

David S. Lewis
Lewis has been a writer, journalist, and editor for over a decade; his work has covered politics, policy, tech, and more. He is the co-founder and contributing editor of The Downlink Blog, a trade publication which covers advances in commercial space-based industry.

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