U.S. Buries Fact It Gave Elon Musk $3 Million To Send Satellite Dishes To Ukraine

from the self-made-men dept

A couple months back, Starlink and Elon Musk got several weeks of press adulation for shipping thousands of low orbit satellite terminals to Ukraine. The units, generally capable of 100 Mbps speeds with low latency, were likely a huge help to locals struggling to maintain Internet access while under Russian assault (with the small caveat that they could inadvertently act as beacons for Russian airstrikes).

To be clear it was a good thing to help folks in a desperate situation. And, unlike past Musk promises (ventilators, innovative cave rescue submarines, working “full self driving” technology), he actually delivered and the technology wound up being useful.

But at the time, Starlink and Musk had repeatedly implied that they had donated the terminals to the Ukraine as an act of pure altruism. But a new Washington Post report indicates that the U.S. government not only wound up footing a large chunk of the bill, they wound up paying Starlink nearly three times the retail value of the hardware ($600), plus shipping:

“USAID actually agreed to purchase closer to 1,500 standard Starlink terminals for $1,500 apiece and to pay an additional $800,000 for transportation costs, documents show, adding up to over $3 million in taxpayer dollars paid to SpaceX for the equipment sent to Ukraine.”

Musk’s company still did donate 3,667 terminals, and three months of free service. That said, other NATO countries have helped foot portions of the effort, and it’s not clear to what extent, because neither government representatives nor SpaceX much want to talk about it. As a rule, Musk companies generally refuse to respond to media inquiries, then get upset about press mischaracterizations.

Again, trying to help Ukrainians get online via a public/private partnership is good (especially since the Ukrainian government asked for the help). Less good is the way that Starlink soaked up millions of dollars in free press headlines that repeatedly implied this was all an act of pure altruism:

“…the company has cast the actions in part as a charitable gesture. “I’m proud that we were able to provide the terminals to folks in Ukraine,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at a public event last month, later telling CNBC, “I don’t think the U.S. has given us any money to give terminals to the Ukraine.”

Musk’s outward facing public persona routinely maligns government subsidization, and bristles at the idea his companies receive such aid. But under the Trump FCC, Starlink and the controversial billionaire received nearly a billion dollars in taxpayer funds in exchange for vague promises to deliver Starlink service to some airport parking lots and traffic medians.

Nobody involved in the arrangement seems particularly interested in taxpayer transparency, or offering precise details on how much taxpayers paid. In fact, the U.S. government appears to have retroactively edited a press release to remove mention of the fact the partnership is valued at around $10 million:

Sometime after the announcement, the agency removed key details from its release. It now states that USAID “has delivered 5,000 Starlink Terminals” to Ukraine “through a public-private partnership” with SpaceX, but does not specify the quantity nor value of the donations.

In short, taxpayers wouldn’t have even known they paid Musk $3 million if not for the leaked documents. The Post being a Bezos-funded paper, and Bezos’ Blue Origin being a direct Musk competitor, means it should be fairly trivial for Musk fans to concoct reasons to casually dismiss the report.

But there’s every indication Musk not only got millions in free press for his Ukraine altruism, he was able to get the U.S. government to pay him subsides three times greater than the hardware was worth. The government, knowing that subsidizing billionaires isn’t a great look given U.S. budget shortfalls elsewhere, then obscured the total. That’s fairly innovative, just not in the way headlines initially suggested.

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Companies: spacex, starlink

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Comments on “U.S. Buries Fact It Gave Elon Musk $3 Million To Send Satellite Dishes To Ukraine”

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OGquaker says:


USAID buys anything it wants with $tax, that’s what they do.
Musk sells a service & hardware. Surprise.

P.S. American Friends Service Committee was supporting USAID against the Vietnamese people in the 1960’s, the Unitarians got disgusted, pulled their money out of AFSC & went their own way.
USAID is an opaque, lying organization. AFSC has, like all bureaucracy, often lost focus.

Anonymous Coward says:

Supply and Demand/Service?

Starlink has about a 1 year waiting list. Seems logical that one would mark up the price for a bulk purchase that forces already waiting customers to wait longer. Large increase in demand with still short supply.

Also suspect that maybe that premium price also included service for some set period of time too.

TexasDex says:

The Starlink terminals are sold at a loss in the US. They actually cost well over a grand last I checked, but Starlink sells them to customers for $600 with the expectation that they’ll pay for service long enough to make up for it. Considering how few of these terminals will result in paying customers, and that each one likely means a U.S. customer won’t be able to sign up, the charge is understandable.

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Anonymous Coward says:


Karl Bode is mischaracterizing this a bit. It’s unlikely that Starlink/Musk profited from this. Those terminals are already known to cost the amount that the government paid for them, the reason they generally sell them for less than that is so that the service is at least somewhat viable for consumers, and they can probably make up for that loss later with subscription revenue. That is very unlikely to happen in Ukraine, at least not any time soon. It would only make sense that they ask for the terminals to be purchased at cost, otherwise Starlink probably couldn’t even afford to do this as they haven’t even made a profit yet, and likely won’t for quite some time.

Is this at least in part charitable? Yeah, I’d say so. But it’s also true that the government spent quite a bit on it.

Also, I strongly take issue with this bit:

And, unlike past Musk promises (ventilators, innovative cave rescue submarines, working “full self driving” technology), he actually delivered and the technology wound up being useful.

The thing with Musk, and people like Musk, is that coming up with wild ideas is the secret to their success. Every time he says something that doesn’t pan out, people like you want to shut him down and/or play it like he’s mostly a failure or a bafoon, just like you did here. But then look at his wild ideas that did make it, even when people like Karl Bode were laughing at him.

I guarantee you that NASA and Roscomos engineers alike were laughing at the idea of reusable first stage rockets.

I guarantee you that engineers at every automaker were laughing at the idea of high performance electrical vehicles that were also both practical and desirable for consumers (You know, at the very least, that Toyota was.)

Speaking as an engineer, I can say that I myself have come up with lots of dud ideas. Probably more duds than successes. Musk is in a much different position than I am though. Musk has to sell his ideas to other people, so he can’t exactly keep things he’s uncertain about to himself. And just because he has a lot of money doesn’t mean he’s somehow less entitled to run his big mouth than anybody else.

And speak of SpaceX, Musk actually bet everything he had on it more than once after he had watched it go through a long streak of failures. If he hadn’t done that, America, and even Ukraine it turns out, would be in a much worse place right now. You can say I’m sucking up or whatever you want (which isn’t true given I do not nor will ever have any kind of business relationship with him, nor will he ever read this) but everything I’m saying here is the truth whether you like it or not.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:


The thing with Musk, and people like Musk, is that coming up with wild ideas is the secret to their success.

Anyone can have an idea. Being able to make it happen is a whole other ballgame⁠—and often a costly one, at that. The difference between the average regular jackoff with a wild idea and Elon Musk is that Elon Musk had a lot of blood money to dick around with.

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