The aero-industrial complex: Ike was right



At a meeting in the NASA headquarters auditorium in Washington, D.C., last month, I looked around and noticed that I was sitting in a sea of white men in grey suits. In the audience of about 200, I counted around 10 women.

(Was this situation unusual? No. Should it be? I think so.)

The talk at that meeting was all about a myriad of proposed technological means to far-flung ends in space, focused on extending human presence beyond Earth orbit.

I felt as though I’d been transported to “The Twilight Zone.” Or maybe I’d been scooped up by Mr. Peabody’s Way-back Machine. I was back in the 1960s, in the midst of the aerospace-industrial complex (or AIC, which is essentially the same thing as the military-industrial complex – more on this below).

With mergers and divestments and retirements, the names of corporations and corporate lobbyists change, but the nature of the complex does not. Like Grendel’s mother, the AIC lives to eat and eats to live. The AIC eats money, and it is indiscriminate in its appetites. It likes all kinds of money – civilian, military, domestic, foreign. Remember, as the late economist Milton Friedman explained, that the purpose of a business is to make money. Period.

So who (now that corporations have personhood) is the AIC? In fiscal year 2012, among the top 100 federal contractors government-wide (courtesy of the Federal Procurement Data System) were: #1: Lockheed Martin Corporation; #2: The Boeing Company; #3: Raytheon Company; #4: General Dynamics Corporation; and #5: Northrop Grumman Corporation.

For the same fiscal year, among the Department of Defense’s top 100 contractors(courtesy of AeroWeb) were:#1: Lockheed Martin, #2: Boeing, #3: Raytheon, #4: Northrop Grumman, #5: General Dynamics.

Among NASA’s top 100 contractors for that same year were: #1: the California Institute of Technology (operator of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), #2: Lockheed Martin, #3: Boeing, #4: Jacobs Engineering, #5: United Space Alliance LLC (owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing), #11: Northrop Grumman, and #15: SpaceX, at $256 million.

Yes, the “entrepreneurial” and “commercial” SpaceX is one of the newest members of the AIC. It ranked #7 on NASA’s top contractors list for fiscal year 2013 (at $355 million). For that same year, SpaceX ranked #88 on the top 100 federal contractors list (at $594 million).

At a public event in California last night, ex-astronaut and SpaceX executive Garrett Reisman said SpaceX is in the business of providing “service to the government.” When asked if SpaceX has more than one customer, he said, “Yes, but we’re not counting on that.” Reisman claimed that for an investment of only $200 million, NASA got a brand-new launch vehicle, spacecraft, launch pad, and test facility. SpaceX put in $600 million, he noted (with no mention of the value of NASA’s in-kind contributions to SpaceX projects).

According to Forbes, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk currently has a personal net worth of $8.7 billion. With a B. “Musk’s fortune has more than tripled in the past year,” says Forbes, “clocking in at $2.7 billion for 2013. Stock in Tesla Motors” – whose development was subsisidized by the U.S. Department of Energy – “is up 625% in the past year…. His privately-held spacecraft-maker SpaceX was reportedly valued at upward of $4 billion in March 2013.”

With money comes access, and with access comes influence. Space policy making is not a transparent process, alas. Many of my fellow space-policy wonks are as frustrated as I am over this administration’s closed approach to policy making, which makes it difficult to determine who is influencing the process.

If you’re interested in the AIC’s lobbying investments, see the Sunlight Foundation’s “Influence Explorer.”


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