Unless you’re lucky or asleep, dreams take work. Elon Musk has announced plans to accomplish one of my dreams, colonizing space. First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win. I expect a lot of laughter over the next few years. I’m smiling, but as I laugh, it is in celebration. Something I tried to further made an enormous step forward with his announcement. I had nothing to do with it; but one of my greatest existential anxieties finally has a hope of relief. It didn’t come from a government. It came from an individual. Already, it has put my life in perspective. It probably will for others, too.
In case you hadn’t heard, the mega-billionaire, Elon Musk, has decided to do what no government has seriously considered, try to preserve the species by giving us at least a second home, and maybe more. His plan is to launch a series of enormous rockets to Mars, each carrying a hundred people for the eventual purpose of colonizing another planet, and possibly the rest of the Solar System. Go ahead and laugh, but for me, this is like finding myself on a passenger liner, seeing icebergs in the vicinity, and realizing there aren’t any lifeboats – and then finding one guy who decided to start building lifeboats, not just for himself, but for as many people as possible. In decades, it will be less amazing that someone did something and more amazing that the governments of the world, and the other ultra-rich didn’t. Even though I doubt I’ll get a seat on the lifeboat, I’m glad someone is building it.
Let’s take this back about forty years. I was an undergrad at Virginia Tech (actually Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, aka, VPISU, which shouldn’t be pronounced.) My selected major was Aerospace (and Ocean) Engineering. I didn’t care about fighters, bombers, or jet liners. I wanted to work on anything that would help us, Us, colonize space. Our planet is tiny and our internal and external threats have grown too large to have everyone crammed onto one over-stressed shell. One big crack from an asteroid, or one stupidly quick and massive war, and our species would become a has-been. I didn’t expect anyone to start working on space colonies that year, but hoped I was learning the right information at the right time in the right country to help make it happen. The Space Shuttle was new, and I was already hoping to work on the successor, because it was obvious that we’d need a successor. We’d never been stupid enough to throw away that much work. Forty years later, I’ve seen a lot of stupid choices. Short-sightedness is incredibly common.
Space colonization was becoming viable. I joined an advocacy group, the L-5 Society, where fellow dreamers considered the possibilities. I also joined the professional society, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which considered itself innovative thanks to the Apollo Program and various advances since World War II. The L-5 Society continues, but couldn’t sustain the energy to keep me engaged. AIAA became entrenched with the mainstream. I realized my best effort would be to learn how a commercial company like Boeing could make vehicles that fly reliably. I didn’t get to work on space shuttles at the start. They offered me a job working on 747s, then R&D, then 737s, then a supersonic transport – finally something that would start to touch on what I needed to learn about high speed flight. Then it happened. Despite a downgrade, I took a series of jobs that let me work on second generation space shuttles, innovative rockets, and satellites. Decades after I started college, I’d get to work on the very things I considered necessary. In the middle of that came the call.
Boeing had merged with (or been taken over by) McDonnell Douglas. Our remote and new manager called us into a conference room. Over the phone and as a group, his disembodied voice told us to throw away our notions of building something. There wasn’t enough profit in it. If we built something and succeeded, the profit margins would be small. If we built something and there was an accident, the company would lose money. Oh yes, and someone might die. If, however, we designed a vehicle and wrote about the design, the company would make a relatively predictable profit. After that design, we’d design again, again with a predictable profit. Repeat. Low risk, high probability of profit, completely legal, of course that’s what the company would pursue. There was no transcript. The person wasn’t in the room. I never met him. And, I watched the dream die. Instead of growing, the group stagnated. I stayed at the company for a few years, trying to find something satisfying, but began making more money from investments than from engineering, and retired before I was forty.
That was almost twenty years ago.
And along comes Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Paul Allen, people how made a lot more money than me, all of who are now launching space-based businesses with their billions. Elon has the grandest vision, but I cheer on all of them (and apply for jobs with them, unsuccessfully.) Governments spend trillions on war and almost completely stall space exploration and development. NASA’s annual budget is less than what the US Department of Defense spends in two weeks. Meanwhile, Elon, Richard, Jeff, and Paul have all launched businesses with their (incredibly large) spare cash.
Governments are driven by politics and election cycles. Space projects take too long to benefit politicians. Businesses are driven by profits. There are no profits to be made by preserving the species. At least one benefit of our economic system and our amazing wealth inequality is that someone with a grand passion can exercise it. Few do, but I’m glad they are.
If you want details, call me and you’ll have a tough time getting me to shut up. Or, check out SpaceX’s various sites. The video is easy to watch, but four minutes isn’t enough to describe the challenge.
A pair of details that have already been chastised convinced me that public perception has a long way to go to understand the draw for many who are interested. Sign up for the trip and you may die. Sign up for the trip and you won’t be on a vacation. Sign up for the trip and it will cost you about $200,000. Who would do such a thing? Me. And, I’m not alone. And, I probably won’t go.
I’m frugal. I look at the numbers. Forget about the fact that it is possibly a one-way ticket to Mars. If I was offered an job that cost $200,000, required a relocation, separated me from our complex of dysfunctional systems, and helped me preserve the species against most existential threats, that’s an offer I’d consider. If I had the money. If $200,000 sounds like a lot, consider how much people are already risking with mortgages, student loans, and medical expenses. For some, that’s barely enough to maintain, maybe not sustain, and doubtfully expand their current lifestyle. Within seven billion people, even one tenth of one percent would be enough to fill the dozens or hundreds of ships Elon is proposing.
That $200,000 appeal is a measure of our species’ pioneering nature, but it is also a measure of the state of our current society.
I know I won’t go. If they’re doing this right, those hundred people on each flight will have to meet certain standards: health, skills, talents, fertility, psychology, and ideology. The other 99 people would probably prefer a young, fit, fun, intelligent, wise, and productive person. I may meet many of those criteria, but they’ll have many more to choose from – just like the companies have been able to find other (younger?) engineers.
The horizon is rising. The Sun has set behind it as I type. For many, the idea of colonizing anything off this planet is ludicrous. But for some, colonizing planets, moons, asteroids, or empty space is as natural as realizing that our planet is spinning relative to the Sun, the rest of the Solar System, and the Universe.
If Elon succeeds, great! If Elon fails, our species, society, and civilization have progressed at least a bit. And maybe, when we realize how much sense it makes to move to Mars, we’ll realize we must be able to fix the problems we have here on our first of hopefully many homes.
Elon, congratulations, and thanks for what’ve you’ve inspired.