Sunday, January 11, 2015
In Praise of the Radical Space Visionary-Elon Musk
As someone who grew up an enthusiastic supporter of the manned space program and survived the various forms of derision generously shoveled out by those folks beholding to the conventional wisdom that such efforts were silly, I take a great deal of satisfaction in the efforts of Elon Musk. For those who don't know, Elon Musk is damn near a real life Tony (Iron Man ) Stark who has literally built several high tech firms out of nothing and made billions in the process.
His crowning achievement, in the opinion of this humble space cadet, is founding SpaceX. This company has already developed a reliable launch system to send supplies to the International Space Station but it is now competing with the aerospace giant Boeing to develop privately operated vehicles that will send people into low Earth orbit. The very fact that Musk's company SpaceX didn't exist until 2002 and is now on par with Boeing impresses the hell out of this tree hugging, liberal generally suspicious of all things capitalistic. Yeah, go ahead and smirk, I admit capitalism can be a good thing, especially when someone with a curious thing like long range vision uses it for the betterment of humanity. See Mr. Musk not only wants to make a buck but is working diligently to establish a human colony on Mars.
‘I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.”’
The great question that continues to puzzles the assorted rabble of manned space program enthusiasts like me is what the hell happened as we entered the 1970's. We had walked on the moon and sent out the first wave of robotic explorers to orbit Venus and Mars and were in the process of building the Pioneer and Voyager probes that would give us our first look at the gas giants of the outer solar system. Sure the space shuttle was going to be built but it was at best an afterthought by a nation that was showing the first signs of a collective nervous breakdown.
Yes, the civil rights movement was still a force rippling through the country trying to overthrow the ninetieth century mentality and, of course, there was the Vietnam War, and a little further down the road the first OPEC-engineered oil crisis. Throw in a persistent Cold War and then Watergate and even a semi-delusional cultural infidel like me can cut the Americans of that era some significant slack.
The problem is that, with a few exceptions, the United States has never really regained its psychological, failure-is-not-an-option, edge. Instead of rationally discussing the issues, we have divided everything along arthritic political lines that have not just devolved beyond simple absurdity but crossed the border into the surreal. All the while the greater mass of the American people happily graze the cable channels in a mind numb state believing their existence is perfectly natural and ordained by God himself and will continue on forever.
This is where Mr. Musk comes into the fray offering up his vision saying we need to look beyond the here and now to something incredible. Yeah, the idea of having people living on another planet is still a far out idea generally reserved for kooks and others with nothing better to do with their lives. The exception here is that Elon Musk has played the accepted capitalistic game with the established big boys, always ready to protecting their realms at all costs, and came out of it the winner.
Why in heaven's name would anyone want to live on a cold dead rock that makes Antarctica look like Key West? Great question and the number one reason is to protect the human race from some extinction level event. We're not just talking about a massive comet or asteroid coming out of the abyss to smack the Earth but some power mad political or religious idiot unleashing a nuclear war or genetically-engineered pandemic. There are numerous other Doomsday scenarios but in my book those two seem the most likely. A human colony on Mars would ensure something of the human race would go on, to me a more than worthy endeavor.
Of course I realize both the Jesus freaks and psychotic back to nature crowd will object since the former believes were just seconds away from the Rapture and the latter views Humanity as a ravaging horde of locusts that should go the way of the dinosaurs. I don't debate either group because the former are truly insane with only their large numbers protecting them from being instituted and the latter suffers from unrealistic expectations for a species that barely a geologic second or two ago was living in trees. Homo sapiens are a brutal and barely sentient primate with a strong predisposition to superstition but it is my belief that we can grow and evolve to something better. It would be a damn cosmic shame to allow our collective psychosis or guilt to condemn us all.
The second reason is something I alluded to earlier, we're fifteen years into the twenty-first century and the entire world, not just Americans, have a mindset not too different from our ancestors a hundred or more years ago. We kill each other over petty nationalistic and religious ideals believing that our small spot on the planet or who we believe is God makes us better than everyone else. Those like me have this unreasonable hope that knowing humans live on an entirely different planet might just be the kick we need to wake all of us up from our primitive and irrational urges and grow the hell up. And if that fails, which in all probability it would, we have a species insurance policy on Mars to ensure something can continue. Any fledgling human colony on Mars would be populated by highly educated types determined to survive, which would require a high degree of cooperation and rational thought, not pleas to an uncaring god nor ridiculous observance to stunted and outdated nationalism.
Colonizing Mars would in no way be easy, the first thing Elon Musk is working hard to overcome is the cost of sending materials and people into space. After that is a whole host of technical issues with some quite daunting, but I would rather try and fail rather than just look on as our primitive and outmoded attitudes and superstitions condemn us all to oblivion.
Okay, just to be fair, here is an opposing viewpoint from another hero of mine, Neil deGrass Tyson.
It's not just Musk who entertains this crazy dream: