Is Elon Musk turning SpaceX into an oil company?

Elon Musk’s speeches on space exploration, the colonization of Mars and the evolution of the human being into a multiplanetary species open up futuristic scenarios that mix reality and science fiction. But in the present, the billionaire-visionary would seem to want to direct SpaceX – the aerospace company he founded and which should bring astronauts back to the moon – towards a sector of the so-called old economythe traditional economy: the extraction of hydrocarbons.

Boca Chica, the launch area in southern Texas where the Starship spaceship and the Super Heavy rocket are being worked on, could end up resembling a gas complex. Musk indeed intends to drill the ground for methanewhich will serve as raw material for both the power plant that powers the base buildings, and for the rocket fuel: after being purified and cooled to a liquid state, methane is combined with liquid oxygen and other compounds to obtain the rocket fuel.

Thus, in June 2020 SpaceX created a subsidiary dedicated to the extraction of resources from the Texas underground – the Lone Star Mineral Development, whose name recalls the “Lone Star State” -, also grabbing mining rights in Cameron County. , where Boca Chica is located. But Musk’s oil tanker ambitions were contested by environmental groups in the areaconcerned about SpaceX’s impact on local flora and fauna – not just from drilling but also from launches and explosions.

However, the company’s energy plan for Boca Chica is on pause, or at least the projects involving fossil fuels are. In fact, while in May SpaceX was working on expanding the solar park that supplies electricity to the site, at the same time it abandoned the construction of a liquefied gas (LNG) facility, a natural gas treatment plant and a water desalinator.

However, the Boca Chica complex – called Starbase – continues to receive LNG tanks. And it is not clear whether Elon Musk wants to give up his goal of vertical integration: that is, to make SpaceX a self-sufficient company, which procures methane for spacecraft itself. The aim is not only to save money (each launch consumes tens of millions of cubic feet of gas) and to safeguard it from logistical hitches, but also to acquire skills that can be used in different contexts. The know-how and the data SpaceX would accumulate from gas drilling they might come in handy tomorrow on Mars and on the other celestial bodies, when it will be necessary to pierce the surface in search of minerals or water. NASA calls it “Use of resources in-situ”, And is one of the pillars of the Artemis lunar mission and exploration of deep space.

Musk took inspiration from the industry oil & gas for another technology useful for the cosmic projection of his company: carbon capture. Last December he tweeted that SpaceX was “starting a program to take out CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into rocket fuel ». In April, his foundation and non-profit organization XPrize granted $ 1 million in funding to fifteen companies to develop carbon capture solutions; six of them are focusing on direct capture from the air, the process Musk referred to in the tweet.

It’s still an experimental and very expensive technology, but the SpaceX boss thinks it’s “important to Mars”. The atmosphere of the red planet it is in fact composed of 95 percent carbon dioxide. If it could be removed and then broken down to get oxygen, SpaceX’s rockets would get the fuel it needs to travel to new destinations.

Is Elon Musk turning SpaceX into an oil company?