The Astronomer Royal may think manned spaceflight is a pipedream, but Elon Musk – the fantastically-moniker’d founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, as well as private space company SpaceX – begs to differ. In fact, he seems to be taking Stephen Hawking’s eggs-in-the-basket metaphor to heart, and wants save the human species from the existential threats that come from living on the surface of a planet with a history of having large space rocks smash into it.
Wearing my cynic’s hat for a moment, I suspect Musk’s stated desire to move to Mars when he retires is at least as much about giving good soundbite as it is a genuine statement of intent — all the highest-flying entrepreneurs have a bit of the P T Barnum about them, after all. But with SpaceX he’s at least putting his money where his mouth is, and this Guardian pen-portrait paints him as being quite removed from the flamboyant Ben Gunn stereotype of spaceflight boosterism; apparently, SpaceX isn’t about making Musk another fortune.
…he is risking his fortune to start a company in a field most people said could not support a project like SpaceX. Again and again, he returns to the themes that keep him going. He sees what SpaceX is doing as part of humanity’s destiny. “I think life on Earth must be about more than just solving problems… It’s got to be something inspiring even if it is vicarious. When the US landed on the moon it was for all humanity. We count that as a human achievement. Anyone who could get near a TV got near a TV. If there was one TV in an African village and you had to walk 50 miles to get there, you’d do it,” he says.
And through it all is the desire to colonise Mars. Musk insists that his most powerful Falcon 9 rockets could already launch missions to Mars if assembled in Earth’s orbit. He wants SpaceX to help humanity spread into space, just like the first European explorers setting out for the New World. “One of the long-term goals of SpaceX is, ultimately, to get the price of transporting people and product to Mars to be low enough and with a high enough reliability that if somebody wanted to sell all their belongings and move to a new planet and forge a new civilisation they could do so.”
There’s something about the way he candidly admits to a long-term mission that everyone else in the business considers impossible (or impractical, or just plain laughable) that makes me want to believe he’s telling the truth. It’s a tough time for dreamers right now — hell, it’s a tough time for everyone — but perhaps adversity will be the heat in the forge.
That said, the analogy to the European colonisation of the New World is an uneasy one; even if there are no natives on Mars to exploit or extinguish (that we know of, at any rate), the earliest transAtlantic colonists had a rough old time of it, and they were sustained by the promise of bounteous resources rather than bijou retirement villas. Life beyond the gravity well won’t be a picnic until long after we’ve managed to get ourselves there… and Charlie Stross has a pretty solid set of arguments that suggest the analogy of space colonisation to the Westward expansion in the US is equally (if not more) flawed.
Even so… if you’re reading, Mister Musk, I’d like to put a small downpayment on a condo sited on the lower slopes of Olympus Mons; sea views a bonus.
Oh yeah, and you should totally hire Jason Stoddard as your head of PR. I’m not even kidding about that bit, either.