His Moment Cultivated, Musk Takes the Stage
published during a waning crescent moon.
09/25/2016

Musk

SpaceX Dragon V2 on Mars. Credit: Public Domain

Just 15 years ago, Elon Musk was a virtual unknown outside of the tech industry, shopping for reclaimed nuclear missiles in the former Soviet Union. Having made $165M from his sale of PayPal, Musk was exploring methods to execute one of his long-standing goals of making life multi-planetary. His initial effort seems tentative in hindsight. Musk wanted to install a small greenhouse on the surface of Mars. He hoped this would help rekindle interest in spaceflight among the public, as Ross Anderson reported for Aeon:

“Images of lush, leafy organisms living on the red planet would move people, [Musk] figured, just as images of the Earth rising, sunlike, on the lunar plain had moved previous generations. With a little luck, the sentiment would translate into political will for a larger NASA budget.”

When the scheme was soured by vodka diplomacy, and—in Musk’s view—overpriced hardware, he took his small fortune back to the States. SpaceX, according to Musk biographer Ashlee Vance, was born on the flight home: “‘Hey, guys,’ he said, ‘I think we can build this rocket ourselves.’”

Musk

Elon Musk. Credit: OnInnovation/The Henry Ford

Flash forward to today. SpaceX employs some 5,000 people and operates a unique family of rockets and spacecraft. Falcon 9, SpaceX’s workhorse rocket, has a mixed track record: 28 successful launches, but two spectacular failures, one of which occurred on the ground. The Dragon capsule, powered by Falcon 9, became the first private spacecraft to orbit the Earth and dock with the International Space Station.

SpaceX has also been a leader in aerospace innovations. Falcon became the first orbital class rocket to deliver a payload to space and land successfully, first on land and then at sea.

And while SpaceX maintains a healthy share of critics in the aerospace industry, there’s no question that they’ve changed the public perception of what is possible when it comes to Mars. “When we talked about Mars before, people thought we were certifiable,” said SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell in 2015. “Now, people kind of groove on it and they like to hear about it.”

On September 27th, Elon Musk will deliver a speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, entitled: Making Humans a Mulitplanetary Species. In 2001, a lecture of such a title, even delivered by a Silicon Valley tech giant, would’ve scarcely garnered attention outside of an aerospace engineering campus.

Musk has cultivated his moment. And now, that moment is here.

Even five years ago, public sentiment for space exploration wasn’t exactly robust. In June of 2011, the Economist Magazine emblazoned its cover with “The End of the Space Age,” a piece that chronicled the end of the shuttle program as the possible end of human spaceflight altogether:

“It is quite conceivable that 36,000 km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over….There is no appetite to return to the moon, let alone push on to Mars, El Dorado of space exploration.”

The piece also dismissed Musk and other space titans as unlikely to develop a viable market for human spaceflight. Yet, SpaceX is now profitable, and valued at more than $12B after a recent round led by Google. The public has taken notice too: More than 100,000 typically tune in to launch webcasts, and it’s not uncommon to see “Occupy Mars” t-shirts around California cafes.

How the public will react to the wild Mars architecture, with its rumored “Big F-ing Rocket” and giant engines to boot? “It’s going to sound pretty crazy.” Musk said at a recent press conference.

But what would’ve fallen on deaf ears 15 years ago, will now be broadcast to an eager audience.

Musk has cultivated his moment. And now, that moment is here.


Joe Mascaro is Program Manager for Impact Initiatives at Planet, a satellite Earth imaging corporation headquartered in San Francisco, CA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not reflect the views of Planet.