By Ben Sladden
The year is 2018 and a car carrying a mannequin-cum-driver now drifts through space, blaring David Bowie from the stereo. Yes, the modern world is a strange place, but we should look deeper and ponder whether this bizarre spectacle is exactly what we need.
On 6 February, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX (a private aerospace manufacturer) and Tesla (a clean energy car manufacturer), watched gleefully as the Falcon Heavy rocket launched towards Mars from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying with it a cherry-red Tesla sportscar.
This was the second-most powerful rocket launch ever, after Saturn V which transported the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Moments later, two of the three ‘boosters’ returned safely to the ground, which may mean these rockets can be reused. Musk, the world’s 12th richest man, reportedly spent $90 million on the Falcon Heavy launch, on top of discarding a $100,000 sportscar to venture into space. The launch also required huge quantities of natural resources.
The launch seemed emblematic of Silicon Valley ‘bro’ culture
It begs the question: what on earth was the point? On the surface, the rocket launch appears emblematic of the wasteful, indulgent ‘bro’ culture of Silicon Valley. It seems like simply a very expensive, self-aggrandising PR stunt.
Indeed, marketing firms could probably not conceive of a better advert for a car manufacturer. “Silly and fun things are important,” Musk said, aloofly, after the launch, adding to the image of the CEO as a child in a man’s body with too much time and money on his hands, chasing the next big thrill. Moral outrage against the rocket launch, however, is shortsighted, and ignores the bigger picture of advancing technology – which may just save humanity.
Yes, Musk is a rich eccentric, but one who possesses a vision and determination. Aside from Tesla — an electric car manufacturer – his other key venture is SpaceX. This company has a more ambitious aim: improving space travel for humans to become an interplanetary species. Musk hopes that one day SpaceX will allow humans to settle on Mars.
Many scoff, and Musk is perhaps overconfident in predicting how soon this goal will be achieved. Yet, haven’t all technological advances once sounded like outlandish sci-fi? A man on the moon? The internet? The idea that we would all be staring into blocks of glass in our hands? 7.6 billion (and counting) of us are immersed in an economic system in which consumption necessitates further extraction and decimation of our planet’s resources and climate.
It is doubtful whether countermoves, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, will even be enough. What will happen to humans in a future scenario in which global climate catastrophe makes the world uninhabitable?
According to Musk, and other futurists, we must look beyond our planet and towards space as the new frontier. SpaceX is working in a void into which short-term investors would never venture. Musk’s ambitions are long-term, and he may not even be alive when the full dividends of space exploration are realised.
Didn’t all technological advances once sound outlandish?
Aside from a human mission to Mars, a more feasible possibility is mining in space. Both Luxembourg and the US have legislated to allow companies to engage in non-terrestrial resource extraction. There are meteors floating in space abundant in gold and other resources.
If, in the future, we can shift resource extraction into space whilst simultaneously bolstering clean energy on Earth we may possibly stem further destruction on top of that which we have already wreaked.
The opportunities in space may just make the world’s first quadrillionaires, but by breaching this frontier, we can reach a future of new possibilities. We should embrace great technological leaps head-on, accelerating the development of our existing technological tools.
We can then decide what we want to do with the technology afterwards. For instance, the internet is ubiquitous now, but has multiple functions and developing uses that are not yet settled.
We should embrace great technological leaps with enthusiasm
Figures like Musk can be quietly encouraged to venture their capital, whilst being monitored by governments. Events like the launch of a car into space are simply surface froth on a deeper, more important technological wave.
It is our role, and that of our politicians, to argue that this new frontier should be dealt with in the best interests of humanity. Opportunities like space exploration and artificial intelligence could create a less severe, less miserable human experience.
They may merely enrich private companies with little ‘trickledown’ effect, but mediating between these two opposing possibilities is the function of politics, and a challenge we should be embracing head-on.
Photograph: Oninnovation via Flikr