On May 5, SpaceX successfully launched and landed its reusable rocketship, Starship SN15. This was a landmark achievement for the craft built to become humankind’s first fully reusable human-occupied interplanetary spacecraft. But the public conversation about SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has been a mixed bag, with many celebrities and intellectuals criticizing Musk’s wealth and his aspiration of going to Mars and eventually colonizing space.
While hosting Saturday Night Live just three days after the successful Starship landing, Musk rolled out his usual ambitious rhetoric: “I believe that humanity must become a multiplanetary space-faring civilization,” he declared during his opening monologue.
Saturday Night Live creator and producer Lorne Michaels received widespread denunciation for inviting Musk to host the show, including from several SNL cast members and other media personalities. Seemingly in response to the decision, SNL comedian Aidy Bryant reposted a tweet from US Senator Bernie Sanders calling the fact that the 50 wealthiest Americans own more wealth than the poorest 165 million Americans combined “a moral obscenity.” Writer Joshua Benton tweeted, “Having Elon Musk host SNL seriously feels like the show's biggest misstep since having Trump host.” And producer Daniel Kellison said about the Musk casting, “My problem with it — like Trump before him — is it humanizes problematic people.”
The animosity toward Musk has many causes, but a big one is the popular idea that his grandiose and costly project of revolutionizing space travel is a waste of resources and more of a vanity project than a laudable effort to advance humankind. Celebrity astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson is a frequent critic of Mars colonization, arguing in a lecture titled “Why a Colony on Mars is Unlikely to Happen,” that, “Before we go to Mars, let’s first talk about Antarctica. Antarctica is warmer and wetter than any place on Mars. I don’t see people lined up.” Likewise, David Wallace-Wells, journalist at New York magazine, wrote in his #1 New York Times bestseller The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, “[The proposal to colonize other planets] is almost a caricature of privileged thinking, and that it should have entered the dream lives of a new billionaire caste was probably close to inevitable.”
Especially scathing has been the popular socialist magazine Jacobin, which has frequently condemned Musk, positing in one article, “The space billionaires — Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos foremost among them — have little stake in the well-being of the majority of the population. Their space visions are designed for wealthy people like themselves, with little mention of where the working class would fit in. They’ve built their wealth on exploitation, and their visions of the future are little more than an extension of their present actions.”
The Real Trajectory of Technology
The attacks on Musk and his vision for the future fall prey to a common and costly error: undervaluing the growth of knowledge. This is an understandable mistake to make, because the implications of future knowledge, by their very nature, are often unimaginable in advance. But the unpredictable effects of new knowledge, especially when manifested as technological innovation, have a robust history of changing the world in ways that benefit virtually the entire human population, not just the privileged and wealthy.
The initial development of the telephone, for example, was met with cynicism and disinterest before its immense utility was widely understood. A Western Union president is believed to have said about Alexander Graham Bell’s design, “That invention is practically worthless. It will never amount to anything.“
The laptop computer was also considered a superfluous innovation in its early days. Erik Sandberg-Diment wrote in The New York Times in 1985, “For the most part, the portable computer is a dream machine for the few. The limitations come from what people actually do with computers, as opposed to what the marketers expect them to do. On the whole, people don't want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper. Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so.”
And J.P. Morgan, who refused to invest in the Ford Motor Company in the early days of the automobile, is often quoted as saying, “That’s just a toy for rich people.” Countless examples abound, because it is almost never clear ahead of time how the world will be changed by revolutionary technology, even though such technology frequently affects humanity for the better.
Critics may similarly be underestimating the public benefit prospects of commercial space travel. It is plausible that the development of spacefaring technology will revolutionize the mining industry by unlocking entire frontiers of resources, improving the repertoire of products available to billions. The solutions to new problems of spacefaring will likely result in innovations that are useful on Earth as well as in space, just as NASA has produced many inventions—everything from baby formula and photovoltaic cells to LASIK surgery and Dust Busters—that we use on a daily basis. And there is no telling how long humans have to prepare before natural global risks such as asteroid impacts or existentially threatening pandemics may arrive at Earth’s doorstep. So even if building self-sufficient Martian colonies or terraforming other planets takes a thousand years of experimentation, humanity’s future may hinge on the project getting started sooner rather than later.
The Timeless Value of Knowledge
Advancing technological knowledge that initially benefits a privileged few often eventually benefits the majority of humankind. This is not a new observation.
"If today,” wrote Nobel Prize winning economist F.A. Hayek in 1960, “in the United States or western Europe the relatively poor can have a car or a refrigerator, an airplane trip or a radio, at the cost of a reasonable part of their income, this was made possible because in the past others with larger incomes were able to spend on what was then a luxury.”
“The path of advance,” Hayek continued in his book The Constitution of Liberty, “is greatly eased by the fact that it has been trodden before. It is because scouts have found the goal that the road can be built for the less lucky or less energetic. What today may seem extravagant or even waste, because it is enjoyed by the few and even undreamed of by the masses, is payment for the experimentation with a style of living that will eventually be available to many."
All technological innovations, even those as fundamental and revolutionary as writing and agriculture, necessarily initially only benefitted one individual or a very small group, because economies of population-wide scale aren’t created instantly. But now virtually every human on Earth is more prosperous because of such innovations.
Without visionaries like Elon Musk to bet their capital on the exploration of new technological frontiers, humanity’s future would be much less bright. But with them, there are no limits in view.