SpaceX’s Elon Musk has become the coolest capitalist of them all
In Boca Chica, Texas, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is preparing another test flight of the Starship, a new and improved prototype called SN15. By the time you read this, the massive rocket ship may well have taken flight in the skies over South Texas. It may even have landed intact this time. Since NASA has chosen a version of the Starship as the first lunar lander since 1972, the test has taken on a greater significance.
However, Musk guest hosting Saturday Night Live suggests that he has transformed from just another billionaire, albeit one who builds rocket ships and electric cars, into a bona fide celebrity. Donald Trump was the last billionaire to have headlined the venerable sketch comedy show. Whatever happened to him?
The real reason that Musk has become the coolest, more controversial capitalist of them all stems from the fact that NASA has made SpaceX a full partner in the Artemis return to the moon program. A lunar lander version of the Starship won sole funding for the Human Landing System (HLS). NASA is forking over $2.9 billion for SpaceX to make two moon landings. The first will be an unpiloted test flight. The second will take the first astronauts to land on the moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972. Unlike Apollo, Artemis has become a true public-private partnership.
Blue Origin and Dynetics, the losers in the selection, have lodged official protests. Ars Technica’s Eric Berger tweeted, “I’ve been told that Jeff Bezos is livid about this, and views overturning the HLS award as a top priority for Blue Origin.”
Musk was a little tart in his response on Twitter, “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol.” Unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin has yet to launch anything to Earth orbit, not to mention the moon. Later, according to the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport, Musk released a statement that was a tad less middle school in its tone, noting that the Blue Origin bid was a “way too high,” and that SpaceX has had more progress creating flyable hardware. Musk advised his rival Bezos to run Blue Origin full-time.
Musk’s advice to his space rival may have been meant to be snarky, but Bezos should take it seriously. Bezos might have his engineers go back to the drawing board and develop a better version of the Blue Moon lunar lander, something that would be more competitive with the SpaceX lunar Starship. NASA intends to hold a second-round HLS competition, giving SpaceX rivals like Blue Origin a chance to shine.
It should be noted that SpaceX is already a full partner in operating the International Space Station (ISS). The Dragon is taking both cargo and crews to and from the orbiting space lab. Besides the scientific and technological advances that ISS has and will create, it has become a catalyst for a true commercial space industry.
Still, Musk has his detractors. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) regards him as his personal bête noire or, as people who hew to his socialistic politics might say, an enemy of the people. Sanders’ problem is that the existence of billionaires, who create industries and jobs, is proof that capitalism works. The existence of Musk proves that capitalism works in space as well as on Earth.
The far left have no idea how many benefits space travel can have for the lives of people on Earth. The attitude has been a problem since Walter Mondale, who recently passed away, was in the senate. Even before the Apollo program concluded, Mondale was investigating space exploration, according to a history on the decision to build the space shuttle. “I believe it would be unconscionable to embark on a project of such staggering cost when many of our citizens are malnourished, when our rivers and lakes are polluted, and when our cities and rural areas are dying.” As far as space is concerned, Sanders is Mondale’s intellectual heir.
Still, Musk has embodied a combination of vision, wealth, skill and no little luck that has served him well. If (when) Americans return to the moon on a SpaceX lunar Starship, he will become more than a celebrity. Musk will be a world historic figure who school children will study for centuries to come.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” 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.
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