Elon Musk speaks in March in Washington.

Elon Musk speaks in March in Washington. Susan Walsh/AP

The Thorniest Subject at NASA Right Now

The space agency is carefully following pandemic measures. Elon Musk thinks they’re overblown. But both are going to the moon together.

Like many employers around the country, NASA has kept most of its workforce home during the coronavirus pandemic. But the agency is still pressing ahead on future missions, including Artemis, the effort to return Americans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program ended, and it held a press conference yesterday to announce the companies that had been chosen to design the systems that would land the astronauts on the lunar surface.

One of those companies, SpaceX, seems especially notable in this particular moment—not for its impressive history of rocket launches and landings, but for its chief executive officer’s recent behavior. For weeks now, Elon Musk has been railing against social-distancing measures that public-health officials believe are necessary to stem the transmission of the coronavirus. His stance seems diametrically opposed to the careful response of the agency that just awarded his company one of the first spacecraft contracts of its kind since the 1960s.

On Thursday’s press call, I asked Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, how his approach to COVID-19 will affect his work with SpaceX in the moon effort. “I would need to see specifically what was said,” Bridenstine replied, referring to Musk’s online posts. “We at NASA, we’ve taken the coronavirus pandemic very seriously.”

I offered to share the tweets, which some observers have said show that Musk isn’t taking the pandemic response seriously, with Bridenstine.

Then, another voice on the line cut in.

“I think this is a different subject,” a man said. “Wrong press conference. Let’s move on.”

It was, by every indication, Musk. NASA, which ran the call, wouldn’t confirm and told me to contact SpaceX. SpaceX did not respond.

NASA hadn’t told reporters beforehand that Musk would be participating in the press conference. A few minutes after the interruption, Bridenstine formally introduced the SpaceX founder, and Musk made a few remarks about the moon mission, thanking NASA for its support.

Musk’s apparent interjection suggests that he might not think what he’s tweeting about the coronavirus is relevant to the work SpaceX is doing for NASA. But when he chimed in during the press conference, he seemed to be trying to control the narrative the way he does on Twitter, pushing NASA out of the frame. The moment foreshadows a dynamic that will shape the future of American spaceflight. NASA is still leading the way in space exploration, but it is mostly doing so in capsules and rockets bearing the logos of commercial companies, some of which are led by innovators who don’t have to be careful about what they say.

As the billionaire head of Tesla and a slew of other companies, Musk isn’t a typical NASA contractor, and he is well known for his freewheeling social-media persona, which has, on more than one occasion, gotten him sued. This has sometimes created a bit of public-relations awkwardness for the space agency. Even so, the moon mission is not the first partnership between NASA and SpaceX—they have worked together for years. SpaceX has been using its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket to launch supplies to the International Space Station for nearly a decade.

At the end of this month, the company is scheduled to fly more precious cargo: two NASA astronauts who used to fly on the space shuttles before that program ended in 2011. In the meantime, SpaceX, driven by its founder’s own vision for space exploration, has worked on solo efforts such as Starship, the project that NASA has picked for its Artemis program. Musk wants to use the spaceship-and-rocket combo to carry passengers to Mars, but he says it could easily land on the moon too.

The upcoming astronaut launch is a joint effort, the final push of a long marathon punctuated by budget shortfalls, schedule delays, and a capsule-destroying explosion. But since the pandemic swept across the United States, the parties involved haven’t been on the same page about the biggest news event on the planet. And although Bridenstine says he’s confident the launch will go forward as scheduled, he did admit that coronavirus-related factors could delay the mission, and said the agency had already begun to prepare for that possibility.