Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Elon Musk: Government-Subsidized Pied Piper

The captain of cheesy stunts, his trendy space debris is destined to orbit the sun for an estimated billion years.
Elon Musk

Elon Musk draws praise from many quarters. To his many admirers, he’s a seer, a tech superstar, a marketing genius. President Donald J. Trump recently cited the 46-year-old multi-billionaire’s ability to launch rockets cost-efficiently. His electric cars, solar panels, self-driving technology, and space enterprise elicit wide attention.

Musk’s privately held Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, makes its money launching corporate and government satellites. The Falcon 9 rocket completed 18 launches last year. NASA contracts keep SpaceX alive.

Rocket launches are not foolproof, and human launches are risky. Amid staggering capital outlays and an estimated $5 billion in subsidies, several unmanned SpaceX rockets have blown apart or vaporized. One exploded on its launch pad three years ago; a billion-dollar spy satellite failed to reach orbit and disappeared in January. Last month Musk shelved plans for crewed space flights and human transport. Still, he pitches Mars colonization as a hedge against earthly catastrophe. His Big Falcon Rocket will someday spirit pioneers—hundreds at a time, he claims—to the Red Planet.

It’s easy to see why Musk appeals to can-do extroverts. Born in South Africa, he is an ardently pro-American immigrant: growth-oriented, private sector-based, expansive, and optimistic. He made his money with PayPal, along with Peter Thiel, and has since built the Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City companies. According to investors who have seen him in action, he is smart, convincing, brash—and quick to change the subject when his financials or timelines are challenged.

Musk’s February 6 Falcon Heavy rocket takeoff and landing were beautiful to watch—and millions did. But then, in the midst of the moment, out popped a cherry-red Tesla Roadster, driven by a mannequin that Musk named “Starman.” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” played in an infinite loop on the stereo system. The display screen read “Don’t Panic” in a tribute to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Roadster contained a laser-etched disk of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, the story of the colonization of other planets to fend off an impending Dark Age.

How cool is that?

Not cool at all, really. Musk turned what could have been a majestic event into a cheesy marketing stunt. His trendy space debris is destined to orbit the sun beyond Mars for an estimated billion years.

Musk plays the press with a magic flute. Rolling Stone breathlessly forecasts that someday “Kids on all the terraformed planets of the universe will look forward to Musk Day, when they get the day off to commemorate the birth of the Earthling who single-handedly ushered in the era of space colonization.” “Terraformed” means recreating a blue-marble planet on Mars, constructing an atmosphere, temperature, and a watery, oxygenated, human-habitable ecology.

It’s no surprise that Rolling Stone finds Musk’s sleight of hand inspiring, but so does the National Review. “The pictures of Starman in his roadster above the Earth are not only glamorous and futuristic. They are inspiring,” wrote Matthew Continetti, who hailed the next step in the dream to become a “gravity-defying, multi-planetary species.” With Falcon Heavy, “our future in space did not just seem probable,” he concluded. “It seemed inevitable.”

“Big rockets are really cool,” senior writer David French added. “In a moment that combined power, grace, and a dash of fun,” Musk “helped to make America great again.” Waving away dire science in rapture, top editor Rich Lowry deemed colonizing Mars “a giant leap for mankind” and Musk “in keeping with the visions we once had of the future.”

Yet outer space is not fun. Falcon Heavy does not make America great again. A future in space is not inevitable. Continetti, French, and Lowry are serious men who write about politics and society with insight, but when it comes to Mars and Musk, they sound like sci-fi fanboys. Starman and the cherry-red Tesla are flamboyant excreta of a tech-mad civilization, and like other tech innovators, it may be that Musk is soon surpassed or forgotten.

Speaking after World War II, the eminent psychologist Carl Jung said to the German novelist Hermann Hesse, “Space flights are merely an escape, a fleeing away from oneself, because it is easier to go to Mars or to the moon than it is to penetrate one’s own being.” He later restated this idea to The New Republic, “In the threatening situation of the world today, when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organizations and powers into the heavens, into interstellar space.“

“There’s absolutely nothing that might make Mars a ‘sustainable’ habitat for human beings, or probably any other form of Earthly life,” wrote James Howard Kunstler. The dream of Mars colonization, he pointed out, evades “making a go of it here on Earth, a planet that humans were exquisitely evolved for (or designed for, if you will), and which we are in the process of rendering uninhabitable for ourselves and lots of other creatures.”

Good science submits that humans aren’t ready for Mars or any other planet. Life support and supply problems are complex enough to make large-scale colonization undoable. The super-hostile, oxygen-free environment is an invitation to catastrophe and extinction. Terraforming is a pretty lie and mirage.

Space fantasies sidestep Malthusian premonitions amid an increasingly slummy, fetid, urban planet. Expanding birthrates with their accompanying water, carbon, and nitrogen demands, evident atmospheric disruption, and the profound global desire to sustain and extend industrial standards of living, all intrude on the fun. Space fantasies allow us to say goodbye to resource fights, predatory migrations, tribalism, and war. We’re going to Mars! Good luck and bonne chance.

“Crazy things can come true,” Musk exclaimed at a post-launch press conference. Romancing his fan base, he tweeted: “Why Falcon Heavy & Starman? Life cannot just be about solving one sad problem after another. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That is why we did it. We did for you.”

We did it for you. This is pure Madison Avenue and Hallmark. In Mars and space exploration, Musk is a pied piper on government subsidies, selling TED-style sunshine and panaceas. Yet he continues to mesmerize many public officials, private investors, and media, some no doubt mightily pleased by their own foresight.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.