The Corner


Elon Musk’s Audacious Project

In response to A Course on Cursing

I immensely enjoyed David’s piece on Falcon Heavy this morning. Putting a red convertible in a rocket and blasting it into space just because he can is indeed one of the most American things ever done.

But as the Cadillac guy knows (I can’t look at him and not see Robert Quarles) that’s not the first electric car blasted into space. We left a couple behind on the moon.

(I am surprised how little attention has been given to the fact that this great achievement in February, a month dedicated to celebrating the achievements of African Americans, was overseen by one of the most consequential African Americans of our time.)

I share David’s admiration for the sheer audacity and enthusiasm of the early days of flight and space exploration, and I am reminded of our friend Tom Wolfe’s account in The Right Stuff of the original astronauts lobbying for a window and manual controls — and a hatch that opened from the inside — to transform the first capsule into a spacecraft, so that the men aboard it would feel differentiated from the dogs and monkeys and whatnot that were sent up before them.

Wolfe offers great insight into what made those men tick.

“The highest national priority”. . . “hazardous undertaking” . . . “strictly volunteer.” So hazardous that “if you don’t volunteer, it won’t be held against you.” And they had all gotten the signal, subliminally, in the solar plexus. They were being presented with the Cold War version of the dangerous mission. One of the maxims that was drilled into all career officers went: Never refuse a combat assignment. Moreover, there was the business of “the first men to go into space.” . . . But within the souls of the rest of the fighter jocks who came to the Pentagon was triggered a motivation that overrode all strictly logical career considerations: I must not get . . . left behind. 

Hans Mark, who was secretary of the Air Force and No. 2 at NASA before he was chancellor of the University of Texas, tells a very funny story about how the famous Pioneer plaque — the aluminum plate engraved with a map showing the Pioneer 10 space probe’s route as well as a male and female human figure — came to be. Mark had been a professor at Berkeley and had begun a friendship with Carl Sagan, a postdoctoral fellow at the time. Mark invited Sagan to come and do a television special on the launch of Pioneer 10, which was going to be flown past Jupiter. Sagan suggested the plaque, saying: “You know, somebody is going to find this thing out there.” Mark thought it was crazy. “Yeah,” Sagan answered, “but it’s cheap.”

Space exploration isn’t cheap, but it is cheaper than it once was. Or, rather, our resources are radically larger than they were in the 1960s, to the extent that a private company and its investors can put together something that once would have represented a major national effort. Elon Musk’s project is reminiscent of the way in which Craig Venter’s work spurred on the Human Genome Project. Venter, who had been an NIH scientist, developed a new way to map genes, driving the price of sequencing down to 12 cents per base — a radical improvement over what had come before. Unhappy with the slow pace of the public effort, he started a company to do things his own way. In the end, the first complete human genome sequence arrived — rarest of phrases — ahead of schedule and under budget. You may remember the dramatic announcement: Bill Clinton, Craig Venter, Francis Collins of the National Human Genome Research Institution, Tony Blair via satellite, ambassadors from the countries whose scientists were involved in the Human Genome Project. President Clinton gave a pretty good speech:

Nearly two centuries ago, in this room, on this floor, Thomas Jefferson and a trusted aide spread out a magnificent map — a map Jefferson had long prayed he would get to see in his lifetime. The aide was Meriwether Lewis and the map was the product of his courageous expedition across the American frontier, all the way to the Pacific. It was a map that defined the contours and forever expanded the frontiers of our continent and our imagination. Today, the world is joining us here in the East Room to behold a map of even greater significance. 

Space exploration is romantic, and resource scarcity is not. Ask any advocate of a manned mission to Mars to explain to you why a manned mission is preferable to sending robots, and the answer you get will sound a lot like John Glenn’s case for a window and manual controls. We feel the need to go, but going isn’t enough: We also feel the need to act and to do. Meriwether Lewis would have understood.


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