Elon Musk can save the 21st century

Elon Musk can save the 21st century
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The one take-away from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s recent presentation in Adelaide, Australia is that his ideas are nothing if not audacious.

He proposed to build a reusable rocket ship capable of putting 150 metric tons into Earth's orbit that could help build a Mars colony, support a moon base and fly people halfway around the Earth taking between 30 minutes to an hour. He aspires to have this remarkable vehicle flying in five years

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The proposal has been criticized on technological and financial grounds. However, no one can fault the idea of a rocket ship as Elon Musk described it and what it could do. One of Musk’s better qualities is his belief in the power of technology to change people’s lives for the better.

 

Besides affordable space travel, he is building electric cars and rooftop solar panels that look like ordinary roof tiles. The Hyperloop, an idea that Musk bequeathed to others, could whisk passengers from city to city, say Los Angeles to San Francisco, in half an hour.

Each one of these innovations, should they become realized, would change the world. A world with Mars colonies, lunar bases and electric cars is what the 21st-century world should be, and sadly, is not — yet.

The actual 21st century came crashing in when four hijacked airplanes struck the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Sep. 11 ushered in the long war on terror that grinds on in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other places, with no satisfactory end in sight.

Madmen in North Korea and Iran seek nuclear weapons to threaten the world. Both Russia and China are playing a modern version of the "Great Game" as they try to enhance their geopolitical positions to the detriment of their neighbors.

In a world with weapons of mass destruction, the danger of conflicts escalating into a civilization-ending horror is very real. 

At home, politics have become more toxic than they have been since the 1960s. Two different Americas, one blue, one red, with different visions of what the country should be, glare at one another, daggers drawn, regarding the other side not just as wrong, but as evil. In times past, such a state of affairs would have boiled over into violence. 

Elon Musk’s version of the future, one in which technology solves problems and improves lives, is much preferred over the current state of affairs in which problems are not solved but argued over, and lives are lost or laid waste out of spite or fear. The latter was created by politicians. The former is the dream of entrepreneurs.

Musk is not the only person with a beautiful vision of the future. Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon.com has already changed how we shop, has his own space company, Blue Origin, with plans for rockets like the New Glenn that can open up the high frontier of space.

Other people have founded companies such as Moon Express and Planetary Resources that propose to mine the moon and asteroids for their abundant wealth — for profit as well as the benefit of humankind. People who have grown up on visions imparted from science fiction and the Apollo missions aspire to make a future better than the present, through the development of technology, while making a profit. 

If we’re lucky, when the controversies and acrimonies of the present have long been consigned to the history books, the world will be the place that Musk, Bezos and all the other technological entrepreneurs built.

The development of new things, especially those designed to open up space, could give the world something wonderful to aspire to beyond fighting out the old conflicts that seem important to people today.

Those struggles may become trivial as time and history bring some perspective, because people will have found better things to do, i.e., exploring the universe, conquering diseases, compressing distances and unlocking abundant, clean sources of energy. Such a future is a 21st century worth aspiring to. 

Mark Whittington writes frequently about space and politics, and has just published a political study of space exploration titled "Why Is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?" He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.