Has Elon Musk gone too far with his plan to colonize Mars?
Monday, October 17, 2016
If there's one adjective that best describes Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity founder Elon Musk, it might very well be ambitious.
Between becoming the world's foremost name associated with electric cars, goals to decrease reliance on fossil fuels and the power grid to help combat global warming, and plans to create a futuristic, high-speed Hyperloop for transporting people and goods, it's clear Musk isn't one for small measures or short-term planning.
But the announcement Musk made Sept. 27 at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, may represent his and his companies' most daring gambit of all.
It sounds like something out of any number of sci-fi novels or movies set late in the 21st century or beyond, but Musk wants to begin to colonize Mars — possibly within the next decade. The South African-born billionaire wants to eventually send enough people to the Red Planet in 100-person spaceships to make a habitat of 1 million, about the size of San Jose, California.
Musk estimated the current-day cost of putting one person on Mars at a cool $10 billion, but he plans to bring that number down to a fare of $200,000 and eventually $100,000 by using reusable rockets and refueling in space.
He said during the IAC address, "Obviously, funding is going to be a challenge to fund this whole endeavor,” going so far as to reference an old "South Park" joke as a way to "profit" from the lofty mission (see image at right).
However, it's worth asking whether Musk might be too ambitious — and whether that ambition might be hurting his companies and his personal brand.
In June, it was revealed that an early May death in a Tesla Model S occurred with the car in the manufacturer's Autopilot software. Tesla was crucially the first car company to roll out autonomous vehicle technology to its cars on the road while the biggest names in the auto world were, and still are, testing the as-of-yet perfected technology.
SolarCity was recently sued for intellectual property theft, and its proposed merger with Tesla may be derailed by various shareholders' lawsuits, one of which seeks to prevent the acquisition from closing.
Then, there's the fact that just a few weeks before Musk took the stage in Guadalajara, a SpaceX rocket exploded in a fireball at Cape Canaveral while getting ready to conduct a test firing of its engines. The explosion destroyed a $200 million Facebook satellite, which was to be utilized in the networking giant's mission to get the developing world internet access.
Musk referred to it as "the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years," on Twitter and went so far as to crowdsource help on the social media site to try to understand what happened in the blast.
On top of that, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg recently spoke of his desire to beat Musk to Mars in a rocket powered by the iconic aerospace behemoth, portending a new space race between SpaceX and a company that had $96 billion in revenues in 2016.
However, as Business Insider noted after Muilenburg's statement, Musk himself is probably OK with having a competitor on the way to Mars, based on his comments at IAC.
"I think it's actually much better for the world if there are multiple companies or organizations building these interplanetary spacecraft," Musk said. "You know, the more the better. Anything, I think, that improves the probability of the future is good."
And while not ideal in the least bit, Musk is likely relatively fine with some of the recent setbacks for his companies, because he's still advancing the underlying science that makes his goals potentially feasible someday.
Author Chris Prophet, who wrote the 2016 book "SpaceX From The Ground Up," said of Musk's philosophy: "Musk comes from a Silicon Valley background and is a firm adherent of the fail fast method of systems design. Any system under development is repeatedly stressed past its limit of operation to discover any weaknesses or flaws, which hopefully allows them to be fixed early in the design process."
Prophet further added that SpaceX itself has a saying, "Fly as you test, test as you fly," and that the goals of Tesla and SpaceX are so "new and incisive" that slower, more pragmatic progress "simply doesn't apply."
Ashlee Vance, another author who has written about Musk in the past, recently caused some controversy with a Bloomberg feature titled, "Elon Musk's Wild Ride," which outlined some of the recent and past travails of Musk's endeavors. However, Vance ultimately concluded that rumors of Musk's demise have been exaggerated and that cynicism towards the billionaire is "somewhere between depressing and ignorant."
For Musk, the equation between pragmatism and ambition probably looks something like an old-fashioned scale with one feather on one side and a pile of rocks on the other. In order to advance science and put humanity on the path to a greater future, lofty — and even seemingly impossible — targets are Musk's modus operandi, regardless of the occasional bad headlines or public relations hits.
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