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SpaceX First VP: I Never Thought I’d See My Own Government Behave Like The Soviet State

American entrepreneur Jim Cantrell, the first VP of SpaceX, woke up one day recently feeling like he had been transported back to the Soviet Union, where he worked in the space industry during the eighties.

Cantrell posted about his experience in the Soviet Union on Facebook, comparing it to the response to COVID-19 in the United States, which has been called the “Great Lockdown” by the International Monetary Fund.

“I woke up remembering the old Soviet Union and the way it was under Communism,” he wrote. “You couldn’t open your business without the permission of the government. Store hours were set by the government. The news on the radio and TV did the bidding of the state and ignored reality, even though the population knew otherwise. People could stop you for just being in public. Why does this seem familiar? Did I awake in the middle of a nightmare?”

Cantrell, who is today the founder of Phantom Space Corporation, felt like he had somehow been transported back to the Soviet Union. “I never thought I’d live to see the day where my own government behaves like the old Soviet state,” he told me. “The irony for me is extraordinary.” 

Trained as a mechanical engineer, he ended up in the space business and also spent a bit of time in the automotive sector. His first job was with the French Space Agency, CNES (Centre Nationale D’Etudes Spatiales). He relocated to Toulouse, France back in the late eighties to work on a joint Soviet-French mission to Mars. “I ended up learning Russian and learning about the Soviets,” he said. “And, back then, I was a Reagan voting Republican, so it was kind of a novelty to actually get to know Soviets.” 

The Soviet Union was never very wealthy. “We in the US, and in the West, made them out to be thirteen feet tall, Superman and so on,” said Cantrell, who received the NASA Innovation Award for Mars Balloon Technology in 1989.  “But, the reality was the Soviet Union was pretty much broken for most of its existence. It didn’t have much infrastructure, didn’t really have much production, and the production, which was state ordered, wasn’t very efficient. And what could be produced, they lacked infrastructure to get to market.” The Soviet Union was never really an economically vibrant place. 

“But, by the time the late 80s came around, there was Glasnost––the so-called openness that the President Gorbachev had started to promote,” explains Cantrell, referring to the policy or practice of more open consultative government and wider dissemination of information initiated in 1985. “But, Soviet Union’s economic situation was pretty dire, and it just got worse and worse. For those of us old enough to remember, the Soviets even had to buy wheat from the United States. At one point, they couldn’t feed their own population, even though they’ve got probably the most fertile place in the world to grow wheat on the steppes of Russia.”  Cantrell points out that it’s an enormous country, taking approximately five days by train to cross. It’s bigger than the United States by far. 

“By the time I got involved with the Soviets in the late 80s, the infrastructure was not there,” he said. “The economy was crumbling. And the government paid every salary in the country, because there was no private enterprise whatsoever, and the government was having trouble paying the salaries, which were poor salaries at best.” 

Russians would come over as part of the cooperation with the French in Toulouse, where Cantrell was based for a time. “We would give them money as part of the agreement to cooperate in space,” he said. “We would give each of these people something like $150 a day. And, of course, they would triple bunk in their hotel rooms and bring sausage over from Russia, and save every penny of this, because back home they were making roughly the equivalent of $30 a month in rubles.”

There was certainly a disparity of wealth between East and West. And then, in 1991, as economic conditions grew dire, there was an attempted putsch or coup d ‘etat. “The hardliner communists pushed back on Gorbachev, who was gradually opening up and liberalizing Soviet society, which was once completely closed,” recalled Cantrell.  “They thought that Gorbachev was betraying the Soviet promise and the revolution. And so the hardliners took power on August 21, 1991. I happened to be in the country at the time. They got the military mostly behind them, put tanks in the streets, and called martial law.” 

At the time, Cantrell was in Riga, Latvia, which was under Soviet rule. He was there on a French delegation visit to an Institute. “We went to work in the morning to start about 10AM, and the institute bus came, picked us up, and when we arrived there was nobody there except this one guy in the meeting room. He’s in the corner, and he’s got this record player. He’s playing Elvis Presley ‘Love Me Tender’, and crying.”

Jim Cantrell in his race car

Cantrell and his colleagues walked in and asked what was going on. “Where is everybody?” asked Cantrell. The worker started explaining that there was a putsch. Cantrell had noticed that the radio was playing the Soviet anthem in the morning. “I figured somebody died, but it was the Soviet Union that was dying.” Within about three days, the putsch ended, and Gorbachev came back to power. But, that’s when Boris Yeltsin, the first President of Russia, came to power.

“There was this great upheaval, and that’s when Russia was born and the Soviet Union died,” said Cantrell, who in 2005 founded Vintage Exotics Competition Engineering, which designs and restores vintage racing cars. “During that period, very few people in the country get paid. There just was no money to pay them. This country was getting by on what it could grow, what it could hunt.”

After the putsch, Cantrell went back to France. He could see that the program for which he worked was dead. “So, I headed back to the United States, but nobody in the United States would hire me, because they considered me to be a traitor,” he said. “The defense complex looked at me having worked with the French and the Russians and said, ‘Wow.’ It didn’t matter that I voted for Reagan back then. I was still a traitor.”

He ended up going back to the university from which he graduated. They had a small space Lab, and his graduate professor, Dr. Frank Reddy, took pity on him, and gave him a job. “Within about a month, I was recruited by one of his friends, who was in the Defense Intelligence Agency,” Cantrell said. “They had a program where they were worried about brain drain and they were worried, in particular, that the Soviet nuclear weapons scientists and the rocket scientists are going to Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and other places.”

So, they were willing to put in US government money by filtering it through the university to different agencies. “And we went over and worked with the Moscow Aviation Institute directly to start employing the critical kinds of people,” said Cantrell. “Our orders were to find programs and find the right people and buy things that were on the black market that were brought to us for sale that might be considered dangerous. It was the wild wild west.” 

He remembers his third trip over there during this period. “We stayed in the Ministry of Defense, and at breakfast, there’s some officers from North Korea sitting one table away from me, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard sitting across the way. It was a surreal kind of thing. It reminded me of that scene in ‘A Few Good Men’ where Colonel Jessup talked about eating ninety feet from Cubans wanting to shoot him. I felt like the same thing.”

The goal was to keep the Russians employed, because these people had to feed their families, so that technology didn’t get into the hands of other nations. “A little bit of money went a long way in the country,” he said. “We ended up putting somewhere north of $10 million of US government taxpayer dollars in.” He thought that was a good program to do.

“And because I knew them and whatnot, I was pretty central to the whole thing,” he said. “Of course, these sort of things never happen without intrigue. But, we started off with the best of intentions.”

The 55-year-old Cantrell is starting to feel very old, watching current events unfold. “No one remembers the things I remember of the Soviet Union,” he lamented. “The COVID virus has caused people to panic. I’m not saying that this virus is fake. But, the panic is totally unwarranted, in my opinion.”

Cantrell is looking at the data, and he’s not convinced we should be so panicked. He never was. “But, what’s more insidious, in my view, is that our ‘leaders’ have used this opportunity to become tyrants and their impulses to be the tyrants is stunning to me.” 

It reminds him of the old Soviet Union, where you were constantly watched. “We knew the KGB. They had people that would monitor us. They had political officers that would make sure that their own people would toe the line, and that they wouldn’t say things that were unpopular.” An example of that today would be saying the reaction to the COVID virus is an overreaction, says Cantrell. 

“That’d be the sort of thing that the political officers would tell you you couldn’t say, and you’d be considered unreliable. You might not get the job next time or you might be put out to pasture,” he said. “Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? We always had that and we always felt bad for the Soviets, because as a people, the Russians were warm, decent people, and they knew the score. They would talk amongst themselves. They knew who the KGB officers were. When you get them aside, they would talk and tell you what’s really going on.”

Their humor really told you what was happening in the society. “They had a joke there I loved, where they said, ‘We  pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.’ They were making light of the fact that they weren’t paid very much at all compared to the rest of the world.”

Yet, their media, such as ‘Pravda’, which means “truth” in Russian, was a mouthpiece of the state––it was propaganda. “We made fun of it in the West, right?” said Cantrell. “Now, we practice it over here. You just don’t know who to believe in the press anymore. And, I’m not taking sides between Fox and CNN. There is so much propaganda going on in our modern press. It’s stunning. It reminds me of the old Pravda.”

Some people in the Soviet Union would read the propaganda, and they would know that it wasn’t necessarily the truth. “And, in the West, we would sort of have to filter it and see what kind of intelligence we could get out of it,” said Cantrell. “There were people that were hired simply to be propagandists. And that still happens today.” He notes The Chinese had a Propaganda Department, which changed its name to the Publicity Department. Propaganda is a part of living.” 

In the Soviet Union, you couldn’t own your own business. “If you wanted to grow vegetables and sell them, you had to do it on the black market,” he recalls. “You couldn’t stand on the street corner and do it, you’d get arrested.”

The country had laws, but no one knew what they were. “You could just get arrested by saying you’d violated some law or something,” Cantrell said. “Really, what it amounted to was it was a country run by permission, not law. You had to have the right permission from somebody––i.e, you’re an essential worker.”

For instance, Cantrell has a letter from the Pentagon that allows him to drive around, because of work he is doing for them. “I’ve got that permission, just like the old Soviet Union,” he said. “People would do the black market stuff anyhow, which is where we’re going with this COVID thing. There’s gonna be restaurants that are going to open up like speakeasies. When I went to Latvia, there were official government restaurants, and they were super expensive, because they were for tourists, and so on.”

Then there were these like speakeasy restaurants, and one of his colleagues knew where one was, and they went down the street in downtown Riga, and knocked on a nondescript door. “The door opens up a crack, and you could hear all this music, see all these people inside,” recalls Cantrell. “And, there’s some exchange of words and then the door shuts, and then it opens again, and we all come in. It’s this huge, huge room with all these long tables lined up, a band, and people playing, and eating. This was all private, outside the scope of the government.” Surely, the government knew about it, but the restaurant was bribing the right person. 

“Corruption is rampant, and you get permission through bribing or relationships or things like that,” said Cantrell. “And, if you were out walking, even as a tourist, you better have your passport. Because you get pulled over by the police, and if you don’t have your documents, then you get thrown in jail, or fined, which is a form of corruption usually anyhow. The fine goes in the police’s pocket. And, there’s really no freedom, and the people knew otherwise.” They had been told stories about America and were always very curious about Americans. Cantrell was always a very popular guy to talk to. 

There was one time when this group of Soviets came over to France. Back in the early 90s, they had the supermarket Carrefour, which was like the Walmart of France back then, where you got the food, clothing, and all this other stuff combined. “There’s nothing like that in the Soviet Union,” said Cantrell. “Absolutely nothing. If you want to bread you have to go to the bread store, and you have to stand in line and get the bread and pay for that. Then you had to go get your meat, and stand in line.”

Shopping was an all day affair, because there were shortages of everything, unless you were a Communist Party member, then they have their own special stores that you could go to and you could get your stuff. “So these ordinary scientists and engineers came over and they wanted to go shopping,” he said. “So we took them to the supermarket, which was this big supermarket, and let them out of the bus there. And, none of them bought anything in the store, but they looked at everything. They walked around and they couldn’t believe that there were all these fresh vegetables there. They couldn’t believe that you could actually buy wood to build something with, and all this stuff.” 

One of them turned to Cantrell and said, “We know that these people that go out with these carts full of things must go around to the back and return them, because there’s no way you can ever have this many riches in a country. We know because this is what this is what our government tells us.” Some people did believe the propaganda. 

“You get this sense of a very controlled society, where the government knows best, the government tells you what to do, but the government screwed it all up,” said Cantrell. “And because of the government making bad decisions, and controlling the whole thing, everything went to hell.”

Cantrell recalls the Russian people under the Soviet Union fondly. They weren’t commie robots. “Maybe in the 40s and 50s, they kept their mouths shut, until you got behind their apartment door,” he said. Very few lived in homes, and public spaces were dirty, including hallways in apartment complexes and the streets. 

“It’s a filthy country, but you get into the apartments and it’s very well taken care of,” said Cantrell. “The soviets took much better care of material possessions than the Americans ever did. Part of that was lack of material possessions.”

Cantrell asked why everything was so filthy. The answer was, essentially, if one person cleaned it, no one else would help. It’s different in the US. “We have whole neighborhoods where we have associations that have you maintain cleanliness of outside public spaces, he said. “It’s something very important in our society, and I think that’s a natural human tendency, but communism destroyed it because it killed a reason to care for it.” 

To Cantrell, this sounds like what we’re going through now. “I just watched this whole mess that we’ve created,” he said. “An economic mess by allowing the government to control our movements, and there is no constitutional backing for detainment. It’s a fifth amendment issue.”

He wishes the people in the US would do a little bit better in their high school civics class and understand the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. “Literally millions of our citizens have died to preserve our freedoms. Millions of people died fighting for our freedoms. And here we are voluntarily giving them up.” The US is a very unique country. 

“This is one of the things that’s made us great, and unfortunately, this panic somehow has shown me how vulnerable the public is to this kind of stupidity,” he said. “So, I guess I’m not surprised that things like the Soviet Union and communist China have happened over the years.” 

Cantrell says we already find ourselves in a similar situation. You can’t disagree with the party line. Climate change was no different. “In climate change, you’re labeled a denier, which is particularly insidious and offensive to me because denier derives from this term of ‘Holocaust denier,’” said Cantrell. “And there is a group of people who truly believe [the Holocaust never happened], and it’s their right to believe this if that’s what they want to believe, but I find it disgusting.”

The implications is that to scientifically question the validity of the models behind climate change is the equivalent of denying that 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis in World War II. “Absolutely unthinkable kinds of comparison,” says Cantrell. “I’m personally very offended by the kinds of language that these people throw about to maintain mind control. The people like that, they’re no different than the Bolsheviks that tortured the entire Soviet Union. The death tolls under the Soviets and something like 34 million people killed under Stalin’s purges. Not only did he throw 10-11 million people at the Nazis––and, OK, that’s war––but there were purges of Jews, aristocrats, intellectuals, etc. They were sent, if they didn’t think right, to the Siberian workers’ camp.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and Communism, helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag labor camp system with his book The Gulag Archipelago.

Being in the tech industry, Cantrell has dealt with venture capital for a while. “On my Twitter feed, I don’t say anything political, because I once had an investor, when I said something negative about Obama, call me a racist. It’s this whole thought control that people are trying to enforce, and it doesn’t lend to a healthy dialogue. When you don’t have a healthy dialogue and healthy debate, you get what we’ve got today.” Now we have this virus.

“It’s real, and it is spreading––yes, it’s a threat. But, suddenly we went from 1 million people who were going to die in the United States, down to 200,000,” he said. At the time of writing, 88,400 people had died due to coronavirus, though  Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, admitted the U.S. has taken a “very liberal” approach to mortality counts, suggesting, perhaps, that number is high.

“So, by the time they get done with it, it’s probably going to be some small percentage of what the initial models were,” said Cantrell, referring to the flawed Imperial model promoted by the now disgraced Neil Ferguson, who had to resign from his position in the UK government. “I submit to you that if we had a society that was more open to debate and defining real solutions based on logic, science, and fact, that we wouldn’t be where we are with this lockdown right now. A lot of people will tell you, this is like believing in God. If there is a God, you better believe in it, just in case, right? If you want to live your life that way, that’s fine. But, you can’t force me to live my life that way.”

In short, Cantrell is angry. “This is the sort of mind control we used to have in the Soviet era, and they had reeducation camps they would send people to,” he said. “If you were mouthing off like I am now, against the state’s will, then you’d be gathered up in the middle of night and sent off to this camp, to be taught how to think properly. If you read a lot of the old communist literature, you can see how disgusting that kind of thinking is.”

There are all sorts of people, who are emulating that sort of thing in the modern day, says Cantrell. “You find it on social media, find it in the news and so forth,” he said. “It’s just a shame I can’t help but compare where we’re at to the Soviet Union.”

If you look at the Soviet Union, it started off with the best of intentions, said Cantrell, who has read some Marx, and obviously isn’t persuaded. “The intentions are that you want every human being to be provided for and to have a fundamental equality. The difference comes in with how that’s achieved. So, young people, in particular, get sold on good intentions, but yet they don’t think through the consequences of how it’s implemented.” They don’t have enough life experience. Cantrell sympathizes. Before he found himself in the Soviet Union, he did not have much life experience, either. 

“I grew up on a chicken ranch in rural California, and didn’t know anything about the world, and everything I knew about the world came from reading encyclopedias,” he said, referring to his hometown of Yucaipa. “All I knew was that sleepy little dusty town I lived in, the myriad of strange and interesting people and the way things were done there. The things you did, things you didn’t do, the standards of morality and so forth.” But, when he ventured out into the world with his first job in France, he really woke up. 

“I found myself in a foreign country, where my ancestors had come from and had, for all intents and purposes, escaped many centuries earlier,” said Cantrell, who was alone with his wife and a newborn child, in a place where he couldn’t speak the language. “When you go out into a foreign culture, you realize how much in your own culture you just take for granted.” It led him to really see the world through a different set of eyes. He had to begin to evaluate it to survive. It was a traumatic experience. 

“As I got to see France, the more I appreciated the country I grew up in,” said Cantrell. “I took for granted the freedoms, the plentiful food, the space, simply the freedom of thinking, the ability to postulate an idea or a dream and go chase it some. None of that was possible in France, because of crowding, tradition, and history, and the culture there placed a lot of constraints on your thinking.” There was a right way of thinking and a wrong way of thinking. 

Moreover, food was a lot more expensive and resources were more constrained. So, you couldn’t just hop in the car and go for a road trip. “Petrol was 3-4  more times as expensive, and by the time I got to the Soviet Union and saw what was going on there, I became a very patriotic American. We have something here very unique and something unique in the entire history of the world, I believe, and as time went on it became clear to me the reason this happened and the reason this sustains, is because of immigration.” It’s the lifeblood that keeps this country alive, says Cantrell. 

“If you go back to the 1600s-1700s, the very early days of settlement here, there was no way for people to know what it was like before they settled,” he said. “They would hear from relatives, friends or colleagues, and you could come to America and make your way. Can you imagine landing on this shore and there are nothing but trees and you’ve got whatever you can carry with you and your family, perhaps, and you have to make your way?” 

The kinds of people that did that were not ordinary people. “Most of society would not do that, because it’s frightening, challenging, and it’s not the sort of thing that normal people do. There is sort of a screw loose, if you will. It is this gene that is selected for here, so we do think differently in this country, even today––and yet immigrants are maligned.”

Cantrell today lives 50 miles from the Mexican border. Some of his best friends are from Mexico. They legally immigrated to the US. “They’re some of the best people I know,” he said. “Think about what it takes for them to leave Mexico, which is in a lot of ways poor, has lots of corruption, and all the things we talked about in Soviet Union, and they make their way here through the desert in the night or maybe they do it illegally.” That’s the spirit we want here, he says. One of the best things young people can do is go see the world.

“See how good we have it here, and to preserve what we have, and our freedom is so important, and as the US, we’ve been the beacon of hope and the beacon of good in the world, not the beacon of bad.”

When he was young, Cantrell was very critical of the US. “I listened to the same stuff that gets repeated today, like about Vietnam,” he said. “Of course, we have done some bad things, but if you look at the totality of it, who rebuilt western europe, and was that way better than Eastern Europe? You bet. We’ve been a force for good and that’s because like-minded people have gotten together through immigration, and built what we have here. This is the best country in the entire world and it’s a damn shame to throw it away.”

After working in the Soviet Union in the eighties, he would return to the US, later becoming part of the abovementioned US government program to stop US adversaries benefiting from brain drain out of the Soviet Union, at a time when the country fell into economic crisis and food insecurity. He went back for another six years of on and off again work.

In 2001, Elon Musk called him out of the blue, wanting to do a private mission to Mars. Musk wanted to buy Russian rockets, because they were cheaper than their American counterparts, something with which Cantrell was familiar. That’s how SpaceX started. Musk asked Cantrell, whose passion in life is racing cars, to serve as the Vice President of Business Development, and helped in the development of the Falcon 1 launch vehicle. 

“I left and did a lot of consulting for the Department of Defense, space warfare, and, most recently, have been involved in some automotive businesses in rocket startups,” he said. 

Today, he thinks communism is still alive and well. “It’s taken on a new character, because the world is a completely different place than it was 30 years ago. Encyclopedia Britannica was the speed of knowledge back then. Now, I am just stunned at how much knowledge I can access through my computer portal. The ability to connect worldwide has changed the way the information flows, and in a lot of ways, it’s been difficult for commies to adapt. If you go back to China at Tiananmen square in 1989, where students were protesting––they wanted western style freedoms––and the communist Chinese let it happen, because there were western cameras. But, the threat got so large they ran the tanks through Tiananmen square and ran students over and so on.” That’s where the iconic imagery of a man standing before a tank came from, for example. 

“The instantaneous connection everywhere has changed the velocity of action and Chinese communist access to each and every individual,” said Cantrell. “The propaganda can be brought directly to Americans through the internet, and there is propaganda from many different angles, and the capitalists don’t have a propaganda arm, because they are busy making money.” 

Cantrell believes we are seeing a third wave of communism that is being lightly called socialism. 

While we see the fall of the Berlin Wall as precipitating the fall of communism, perhaps there is a “middle way” that has been perpetuated in the decades since, in which capitalism and communism merged into a new system. Zbigniew Brzezinski referred to the Chinese system as “commercial communism,” for instance. Cantrell has seen a major transformation of Chinese society in his lifetime into this sort of system.

“Back in the 70s, I remember when Kissinger and Nixon went over there,” remembers Cantrell. “China was very isolated. During the Cultural Revolution, they went through the same purges that Stalin did. They got rid of the intelligentsia, the so-called intellectuals, and mashing of all wealth into a common denominator. But, the whole engagement with China was at the time seen as a play against the Soviet Union.”

At the time, the Chinese and the Soviets were fighting each other on the borders. “It was a polar strategic maneuver by Kissinger, his China policy. George H.W. Bush was actually the ambassador to Communist China later and then the engagement under the first Bush regime with China was really where it all started to change, as they became a capitalist-communist country. Some call it crony capitalism, but they allow certain people to have capitalistic endeavors that serve the state.” It is nonetheless controlled by the state. 

“Follow the money,” he said. “There is a lot of Chinese money that made its way into technology investments. And, there is a lot of repatriation of that IP back to China from these investments.” 

Cantrell has had Chinese employees in the tech sector, and asked their spouses why they think it’s okay to send American IP back to China, and they say the Chinese people need it, and it shouldn’t be something hoarded by one nation. “They have a fundamentally different world view,” said Cantrell. “Plus, you marry communism with it and it becomes a difficult force to counter, and particularly when sold in such nice packaging, such as Bernie Sanders, who appeals to the moral authority of young people.” When you are young, you are more full of yourself than later on in life, says Cantrell. 

“If you look at the history of Germany or under fascism in Italy, it is really the same system,” said Cantrell. “The fascism of World War Two, and Chinese communism, start to be indistinguishable in the sense of the merging of state interests and capitalist interests. The Bernie Sanders style of communism, and really what’s both by some Republicans and Democrats being talked about, is a form of fascist-communism.” Cantrell knows he sounds kind of radical.

“But I’m just a liberty seeking person to live and let live.” The coronavirus lockdown is exactly the opposite of such principles, he says. He doesn’t understand how people think the current affairs are in the great American tradition.

“What surprises me the most with the COVID response to the virus are these people who I thought were not like this, actually have these totalitarian tendencies that the government knows best and say ‘Just sit down and don’t worry your pretty head.’ I am surprised by how many people have gone along with this. … I would have thought we’d have insurrections in the streets right now.”  We’re not quite there, and Cantrell hopes we don’t have that. 

“If the government keeps this forced lockdown much longer and the economic damage starts to really become apparent, we’re going to have some civil unrest.”

In the words of Lenin, What is to be done?

“What must be done is each and everyone of us must speak up and bear that ridicule, because that ridicule is one sided,” said Cantrell. “I am not an intensely political person, by the way, I am much more an amateur historian than anything else. My motivation to speak up has been out of that understanding of history, and each and everyone of us not forgetting how many millions of people have died to preserve our liberties. That’s sacred stuff, and if we don’t stand up for it, we don’t deserve to keep it––it’s that simple.”

Listen to the podcast version here.

Check out Jim’s website here.