Op-ed: Elon Musk’s Age of Exploration

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Friday, March 16, 2018 1:17pm
  • Opinion

Next year on Mars.

Well, not quite, but entrepreneur Elon Musk told the tech confab South by Southwest that the interplanetary spaceship he’s building will be able to do short “up and down” flights by next year.

Musk’s goal is to colonize Mars, a delightfully daft idea that has had a persistent hold on our imagination — German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun wrote a piece for Collier’s magazine in 1954 titled “Can We Get to Mars?” — and that is a fit object of Musk’s vaulting ambition.

The founder of Tesla and SpaceX is, through his brio and technological prowess, bringing back a whiff of the Age of Exploration, the time when men launched across oceans in rickety ships in pursuit of the unknown (and perhaps untold riches).

NASA used to partake of this same spirit. Once upon a time, American kids had glossy photos of rockets and astronauts on their walls. That was before the end of the Apollo program and the advent of the white elephant space shuttle that, by the end, had all the glamour of a very expensive and clunky (not to mention hazardous) crosstown bus.

All you have to know about the exuberant sensibility of Musk’s operation is that the rocket he’s going to colonize Mars with is named BFR (The Big [expletive deleted] Rocket). Or that last month he launched the new Falcon Heavy rocket into space carrying a Tesla Roadster as the payload with a mock astronaut behind the wheel — because, why not?

Musk’s ambitions — electric cars, driverless cars, powerful, reusable rockets — are more in keeping with visions we once had of the future. We live in an age of technological miracles, especially related to computing and medicine. But the innovations that are now ubiquitous, the iPhone and Facebook and other social media platforms, aren’t the futurist imaginings of yore. They are great tools, but often inward-looking (they have arguably made us smaller rather than bigger).

Colonizing Mars would, in contrast, be an inarguable giant leap for mankind. Settlers traveling to the red planet would replicate the Atlantic crossings of the 17th century, which took months and deposited people in a forbidding wilderness that they often didn’t survive. But Mars isn’t like North America, a fertile continent stocked with wildlife and fish for the taking. It is a vast, cold desert without enough oxygen to support human life.

Could we pull it off? The killjoys at MIT released a study pouring cold water on the very loose plans of the so-called Mars One project (not associated with Musk) to settle people on Mars beginning in 2025. The MIT researchers pointed out that if crops were grown within the habitat of the settlers, the plants would set off a chain reaction rendering the space uninhabitable. Details, details.

Elon Musk’s chipper take is that Mars is “a fixer-upper of a planet.” He joked with Stephen Colbert that the rapid way to warm the place up would be to “drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.” His more modest idea is to place small, continuously detonating fusion bombs at the poles — you know, like little suns.

Musk conceives of a colony on Mars as a hedge against a planetary catastrophe on Earth. You can never be too careful. But the more compelling rationale for the venture is the sheer audacity and challenge of it. Why did we colonize Mars? Because it was there.

The great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury enthused when we landed the Viking 1 probe on Mars in the 1970s: “Today we have touched Mars. There is life on Mars, and it is us — extensions of our eyes in all directions, extensions of our mind, extensions of our heart and soul have touched Mars today. That’s the message to look for there: We are on Mars. We are the Martians!”

He wasn’t quite right. At least not yet.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

More in Opinion

Opinion: Freedom in the classroom sets precedence for the future

We advocate for the adoption of legislation to protect students’ First Amendment rights…

A roll of “I Voted” stickers await voters on Election Day in Alaska. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the prospect of a state constitutional convention. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Election winners, losers and poor losers

Tshibaka and Palin misread Alaskans by thinking Trump’s endorsement all but guaranteed they’d win.

This 1981 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows an electron micrograph of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV. Children’s hospitals in parts of the country are seeing a distressing surge in RSV, a common respiratory illness that can cause severe breathing problems for babies. Cases fell dramatically two years ago as the pandemic shut down schools, day cares and businesses. Then, with restrictions easing, the summer of 2021 brought an alarming increase in what is normally a fall and winter virus. (CDC via AP)
Alaska Voices: What Alaskans need to know about RSV

By learning more about respiratory illnesses and taking helpful actions, we can all take steps to improve the situation

Homer Foundation
Point of View: Multiplying the power of every local dollar given

Each community foundation is a public charity that focuses on supporting a geographic area by pooling donations to meet community needs

The Homer Public Library as seen on Aug. 18, 2021, in Homer, Alaska. (File photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
Point of View: Banning books corrodes diversity and inclusion in our community

Recently, a community member requested that a long list of books be removed from the children’s collection

Peninsula Oilers fans display encouragin signs for Oilers’ pitcher Bryan Woo, Friday, June 28, 2019, at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)
Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Opinion: Judging judges — balancing the judicial selection process

Alaska’s method of selecting judges can be and should be improved.

Sarah Palin speaks at a July 11 Save America Rally featuring former President Donald Trump at Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The realities of Palin’s political demise

Palin wouldn’t be running for the seat if Rep. Don Young was still alive

Former Democratic state Rep. Beth Kerttula holds up a sign reading “Vote No Con Con,” during a recent rally at the Dimond Courthouse Plaza in Juneau. Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: What can a liberal and conservative agree on? Voting against a constitutional convention

“We disagree on many issues. But we… urge Alaskans to vote against Proposition 1.”

A “Vote Here” sign is seen at the City of Kenai building on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Kenai, Alaska. (Clarion file)
Down to the wire: Be prepared before you vote

Remember your voice counts and all votes matter

Soldotna City Council member Justin Ruffridge. (Courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: We must refuse to reward ugly political tactics

With our vote we have to show that extremism and dishonesty do not win the day