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Are supported by advertising. Hello, I'm Katya Adler from the BBC World Service. This is The Global Story. Our mission is to give you smart, fresh takes on the stories that matter. Today, we're having a look at the world's richest man, Elon Musk. And you might ask, when are we not looking at the world's richest man, Elon Musk? Because it seems he's everywhere these days. We've heard about SpaceX. And of course, there's X, formerly known as Twitter. But did you know he controls half the satellites orbiting our world, even leading Musk to intervene in global warfare? Could it be that one man already has too much control and the power that goes along with it? How concerned should we be? Well, with me today is the BBC's science correspondent, Jonathan Amos, and our North America technology reporter, James Clayton, who's interviewed Elon Musk and is in San Francisco. Hello both.


Hey, Katia. Hey.


First of all, Jonathan, I just want to ask you why this fascination and focus on satellite?


He's read the books, Katya. He's read the science fiction books. You speak to a lot of these tech entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley, they're big science fiction fans. They want to make it science fiction. It's no surprise that Elon Musk gets himself into position after starting early on the internet, that then he would use the millions that he'd made to try and make a space company. He did that with SpaceX, and he wasn't terribly successful to start with. He had a small rocket, failed four times. They had to launch on the fifth time and make it work, otherwise the company was going to go bust. They just about did it. Then they got a contract from NASA, devote the Falcon Nine rocket, which has conquered all before it. That Falcon Nine, a group of them, he has a fleet of them, they're launching once, twice a week, mostly putting his satellites in orbit 20, 30 at a time.


Why, though? What is he trying to do with the satellites?


He's had this idea of creating this broadband internet constellation. He calls it Starlink. As you know, it now has over 5,000 operational satellites in orbit. If you're 200 kilometers up and he's trying to connect the underserved or the the not-served to fill in those nut spots around the globe. There's still a lot of those, and he's been very successful so far. You as a broadcaster, Katty, will know standing in a remote area, you'd get that horrendous delay, wouldn't you? Where the presenter in the studio asks you a question, and then when it comes out on the TV, it's as if you don't reply for about three or four seconds. You know that?


Yeah, the dreaded delay.


The dreaded delay, right? Well, I was in the Utah Desert a few weeks back, connected to the Starlink system. We're in the middle of nowhere. We had on a Starlink dish and I was talking to the studio and it was like I was in the studio. It's latency. It's about this idea of having no gap when you do your connections. For broadcasters, that's brilliant, but there are all sorts of systems out there that don't like latency. I was in a factory in Eastern England very recently, and they're making robot boats. They can't wait for these new systems because it will give them the assurance, the control, the idea that nothing can go on that is untoward because they are in real-time connection.


James, you are peculiar, if you like, in the way that you've actually sat down with Elon Musk, who doesn't often talk to mainstream media. What do you think this satellite venture is about? Is it a humanitarian idea about making it easier to access the internet in different parts of the globe? Or is it more a self-interested business venture?


His reason for doing this, his primary reason, doesn't appear to be to give internet to everyone. His primary reason is much more large scale and grandeose. He thinks that one of the most positive things that you can think of is being able to have interplanetary travel. He wants to set up a community in Mars. I mean, he hopes it'll be a city in Mars, and he hopes that eventually it'll go to other planets too, saving humanity from this current world.


And it's not like he's shy, is it? When he comes to his ambitions for Mars, he said this a year ago on the FullSend podcast.


Assuming Starlink is successful.


It should generate enough revenue to pay for enough shifts to get humanity to Mars.


You always have to take what Elon Musk has with a pinch of salt. But if you take him at space value that he wants to go to Mars, he's deadly serious about creating a community in Mars. That's not just like high in the sky, he is deadly focused on that, probably more so than anything else in his career.


But it sounds like he's going to use Starlink as a stepping stone towards deep space exploration. I mean, that means putting more of his satellites in the sky, giving him huge amounts of power. And we've already seen him getting involved in huge international conflicts. Just listen to what he said at the VivaTech conference about Starlink's role in the Russia-Ukraine war.


Starlink did.


Play a pivotal role because Russia had actually taken out all of the satellite communications and all of.


The ground.


Communications, except for Starlink, was.


The only one.


That was still operating. And Starlink today is the.




Of the Ukrainian military communications.


The Russians took out the telecommunications system in Ukraine, and that made it very difficult for Ukrainian forces to operate. And so he offered sending these dishes, like the dish I was using in the Utah Desert, sending these dishes into Ukraine so that the Ukrainian forces could do the essential communications that they required in order to martial their forces to take on the Russian forces. And of course, there was a little bit of a spat when it was found that they were using that system offensively, as Musk put it, to attack places in Crimea. He was quite happy, he said, for the system to be used defensively. He wasn't quite so happy to see it be used offensively by Ukrainian forces to attack Russian positions. Now, yes, he had that system, and it wasn't a case of him switching it off, which was where the conversation got to in the world's media. It just hadn't been switched on. But yeah, it's a very capable system. Very capable system indeed. But there are going to be quite a few of these systems. I would just hold forth on the idea that there is some megalomaniac in the corner who's controlling our lives.


Yeah, okay, I understand the words of caution, but at the moment, it's the name Elon Musk that appears in the middle of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Elon Musk's name appears in the middle of the Israel-Hamas conflict, where he tweeted he'd give Internet access to internationally recognized aid groups in Gaza. We know that comms have been down in Gaza during the recent violence. Elon Musk's name is linked to China through other business interests. It's linked to India through business interests. So considering the amount of input he has in communications and information that people receive around the world, you have to ask some pretty big questions, don't you? In theory, he has in the palm of his hand open and free information with his satellites. He can provide information or he can take it away from people if he decides it's not in his own business interest.


So in China, he has a massive business interest when it comes to Tesla. About a quarter of Tesla's market is in China. It also has a massive gigafactory in Shanghai. The company has absolutely bolted itself to China in the same way that Apple has, for example. But there's a real issue there in that China is competing with SpaceX. And, of course, you could also argue, does Elon Musk criticize someone like Xi Putin in the same way that he would criticize, say, American leaders? It was something that I actually asked him when I interviewed him, and he fobbed it off. He said, Well, Twitter at the time isn't actually based in China. It's banned in China, so that's not relevant. But you can see how these kinds of conflicts rub up against each other. For example, there are reports that maybe Tesla might open a factory in India. It appears as though Tesla is negotiating with the Indian government about trying to reduce duty on Teslas as part of a quid pro quo. It's fine for Tesla to do that. But equally, we also have a situation where the former Chief Executive of X, which was then Twitter, Jack Dorsey, says that the Indian government would regularly ask Twitter to take down posts and even threaten to shut down the platform.


Which, of course, India's government denied. But all of this conversation does raise big questions about the bigger thing of freedom of speech, not from Elon Musk's point of view, but from the ordinary punters' point of view, especially if you think about election time, if tweets are removed, if Elon Musk decides to shut down internet access in certain areas, the power is enormous over democracy.


He's almost like a state, a one-man state. Actually, when he went to the UN a few months ago, he was pressing the flesh with a load of world leaders. And I've seen pictures with him with Net and Yahoo, with Modi, with Erdoán. You're not dealing with a person anymore. You're also dealing with someone who has the most Twitter followers in the world, so he can dictate narratives like you are dealing with someone who is just totally different to anyone else in the world. Jeff Bezos has nearly as much money as him, but he has nowhere near the level of impact and influence that Elon Musk has. What are our governments actually doing? Are they trying to work in the interests of creating jobs for people? Or are they trying to hold another one of Elon Musk's companies feet to the fire? It's a really interesting dynamic, and it's never really happened before. We've just never been in a situation where one person owns so many influential companies.


He has had. He picks up the phone. The Prime Minister on the other end will answer. We've seen that with his visit recently to Israel to see Benjamin Netanyahu. We saw it when he came to the UK to the AI Summit where he sat down for the Fireside Chat with the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. He operates on that nation state level. That's the influence that he has. I see that in the space arena. It was a few years ago that Europe was all dominant in terms of launching big satellites into orbit. We had a rocket called the Arianne Fine, a majestic rocket for 30 years or so. It put up half of all of the major satellites that are now in the sky. They had to retire it because it was just uncompetitive in the face of what Elon Musk was doing, the innovative things that Elon Musk was doing.


So as of Elon Musk's satellite empire, his domination at the moment of lower orbit with Starlink, we've talked about big moral, ethical, and political questions, but there are some pretty huge practical issues as well, like what happens if the satellites collide?




Katya Adler, and this is the global story where we aim to provide you with fresh global perspectives on the big stories facing all of us. Do follow or subscribe wherever you listen to us. If we have a look at what the skies above us could look like. So if we think that Elon Musk has got over 5,000 satellites in lower orbit, and he's already not the only one, so he's got 50 % of the satellites at the moment, more could be on their way. What is the picture in the sky? How full does it look?


It's getting busy up there, particularly in that realm, low Earth orbit. So we're talking just a few hundred kilometers above the Earth, and there these satellites will be moving at a few kilometers per second. Okay, that's pretty quick. You're carrying an enormous amount of kinetic energy when you move at that speed. If you hit something, you make an enormous mess. We've seen this a few times down the years. Not too many, I'm pleased to say. But increasingly there are concerns that we are likely to see more and more collisions in the future. You've probably seen that film with Sandra Bullock called Gravity. That is loosely based around something we call the Kessler syndrome, named after a scientist called Don Kessler, who projected a scenario into the future where collisions would lead to debris, which would lead to collisions, which would lead to debris, and you get a runaway, an exponential growth of debris, which ultimately would make space unusable. It would make it very, very difficult to operate for anybody to operate, because as soon as you put something up, then it would get hit by something. And as I say, if something is moving a few kilometers per second, that fragment doesn't have to be large before it does a lot of damage.


Even something the size of a fleck of paint can do an awful lot of damage when it's moving at that speed. But he's not going to be the only person in that space. There's another company called OneWeb that has 600-plus satellites in orbit doing exactly the same thing. The Chinese will have their own system. The European Union wants its own system. It's called Irish Square, which they hope to roll out in a few years. We have Jeff Bezos with his KIPA project. Jeff Bezos has immensely deep pockets, so he will be able to afford to put up a rival system, which he is just rolling out now. There are concerns that if we increase the number of satellites, and we are talking about tens of thousands of satellites over the next few years that unless we have some very good traffic management up there, then collisions could become much more frequent. I'm afraid it's one of those situations where it's not like the police put standing in the middle of the road with a whistle and he could see the car coming from one direction and could see a lorry coming another direction and he's got time to think who he's going to allow through.


These things are moving so fast and there are so many of them that it is beyond human capacity to be able to manage that. The systems will have to look after themselves. The satellites will essentially be part of a mesh, and one of them will suddenly say, Well, I can see a maneuver that is going to be required in five orbits time. Unless I do that, then there is likely to be a collision. That's when Sandra Bullock suddenly makes an appearance.


Sandra Bullock, she's got a screenwriter or a few, doesn't she? The problem about, if we have a look at lower orbit, is who designs a lower orbit version of air traffic control? Which country, which body, who decides the rules? There are no international rules, just vague treaties as things stand, if I understand it correctly.


Yeah, but a lot of people are working on this, and it is a technical solution that is required if we want to use that space efficiently. And, of course, it's in everybody's interest that there are rules of the road, because if Elon Musk is responsible for some runaway situation, it's not just other people that can't use space. He won't be able to use space either. I remember I was at the Kennedy Space Center, I think it was last year when we were waiting for the launch of NASA's big moon rocket, the space launch system. They had, I think, about a two-hour window to get this rocket off the ground. But within those two hours, there were certain cutouts, 40 in total in those two hours where they couldn't launch because as they went up through the sky, they were going to come too close to a Starlink spacecraft whizzing across the sky. But those are the considerations that now exist. People are thinking about it, and they are designing systems that will be able to manage this very crowded space that we will get into.


When you say people are thinking about it, I'm wondering which people? Because if we have a look at interest, because we've talked about China, we've talked about Elon Musk has contracts with NASA, that's the US Government Space Agency. So who is going to design a system and who will accept a system that is in the interest, fair interest of all? Because to me, there seems very strongly interested parties. I can't imagine who is the body that hovers over all of that.


The leading authority at the moment for surveying what is happening in space is the US government, the US military, because they have very real reason to look after their assets. But China is doing the same. Other Western powers are doing the same. There are lots of countries at state level that are using their systems to see where everything is moving. But increasingly also, you've got private companies coming in there as well that want to look at where all of the assets are, where they're moving, how fast they're moving, will they converge? And that data they're selling, but it's also being gathered together. And it is a data sharing exercise ultimately, I think. It has to be an open source exercise, otherwise we could run into some difficulty in the future.


Can you envisage, or should there be, in your opinion, limits on how many satellites can be launched into lower orbit?


There are some physical constraints on how much you can launch and what you can do. All of the Starlink satellites operate under a license from the FCC, the Communications Commission in the United States, which itself is part of that international organization, the International Telecommunications Union, which is controlling the use of radio frequency. You can't just go up there, switch a radio on, and start communicating. You do have to work within those international rules. But I come back to that point. It is within everybody's interest to have a highway code, because if we don't have a highway code, then everybody is going to fall into the difficulty where they can't use space.


James, if I could come back to you as somebody who has sat down with Elon Musk and interviewed him, did you get a measure of him at all? Just recently at the New York Times deal book summit, he let forth a whole load of exploitives and advertisers, as we can hear just now.


If somebody's going to try to blackmail me with.


Advertising, blackmail me with money, go.


Fuck yourself. But go fuck yourself.


Is that clear?


I hope it is. He does have this image, James, of being someone who is unpredictable, out of control, which could make one worried about the amount of information and power that he has. Is he out of control, or does he do this to hit the headlines?


People talk about a good Elon and a bad Elon and how he flips between two, and that was evident in my interview and also in the interview with The New York Times or The New York Times deal book summits. It's really clear in the way that he has operated X that he's not necessarily a reliable person you would necessarily want to do business with. That's not my words. Those are the words of advertisers. I mean, advertisers have left X in droves. In terms of X, in terms of revenue for the company, advertising is totally essential. The company cannot function or cannot even get close to running a profit without advertising. We think it's around 90% of all of Twitter's revenue comes from advertising. You would have thought that Elon Musk would A, be trying to appease advertisers, and B, be trying to enact policies that bring advertisers in. He makes these quite irrational decisions. You never know what he's going to say. He could push back, he could say something really thoughtful. He pauses and answers each question very, very carefully and meticulously. But you just never know what Elon Musk you're going to get.


It feels like he runs his business a bit like that too, and that's what makes people worried, because ultimately, his decisions on X in terms of moderation can have real-life consequences. And, of course, if you have someone with this immense power with SpaceX, but yet a lot of people don't necessarily trust him. A lot of people think that he acts on instincts, which can be good, but not necessarily when you have this immense power, a global stage. This is what worries people, that is Elon Musk a reliable person? Do we want to, as countries around the world, place all this power in the hands of Elon Musk? There's not that much we can do to stop that, but it is definitely a really interesting question.


If we look at the satellite project, SpaceX, what next? What do you predict comes next?


Well, he will continue to build out his Starlink system. He needs this big starship rocket that he's building and testing down in Texas. He said, A couple of flights so far. Second flight did very much better than the first. I'm expecting the third in the next few weeks to do better still. I think he's going to make that work. He needs that rocket, this huge, fully reusable rocket, to get more Starlakes into orbit. Because once you've built the system, you're then going to maintain it. If it's a big system, maintaining it is a massive job, and that will bring the revenue in. He's now got 2 million subscribers for Starlink worldwide. I think that the British tariff currently is 75 pounds a month. You can do the math, as the Americans say. If he gets several million more, then that is going to be the cash cow for his business, not launching rockets. It's going to be selling internet connections, which is going to make the money for him. And then, as James was saying, he's got his eyes on Mars.


Well, James and Jonathan, thank you very much for holding our hands and taking us into places no person has ever been before.


No problem at all.


Thanks, Katja.


Thank you for listening. Send us a text or a voice note at plus 4.4, 3.30,, or you can email us at theglobalstory@bc. Com. We have been reading your messages from the United States, Canada, from Colombia, and we'll answer your questions in future programs, so please keep them coming. We love to hear from you wherever you're listening in the world. This has been The Global Story. Goodbye.