One common criticism of Elon Musk goes like this: “Musk is spreading himself too thin in ten thousand different projects, dividing his attention and endangering success in the ones that already seem to be on a good track. He should focus”. But that’s not really the case – Musk is actually doing only one big thing, but converging on it from several sides.
The critics are like the proverbial group of people fondling an elephant in a dark room, each holding a different part and disagreeing what it is. Tesla is the trunk, SpaceX is a leg, the Boring Company is the … anus (get it? because tunnels), SolarCity is an ear, Hyperloop is the tail, OpenAI and Neuralink are, uhhh, the tusks.
Considered separately, they feel like a bunch of random bits – and it looks like Elon is spreading himself out totally irresponsibly, a gadfly of vague overpromise and half-baked utopia. But when you look at the big picture, Elon is singularly, obsessively and very carefully focused on building the whole fucking elephant.
Imagine a man building a house, doing various work around the site. A passerby may ask “But why are you bothering with the pipes, weren’t you placing wires just a minute ago?”. Yes. And it doesn’t make sense if you think of him as an electrician or plumber. But it makes perfect sense when you think of him as a housebuilder.
The point is that all of Elon Musk’s various companies and projects tie together.
The main objective is going to space – properly going to space. Not just shooting some sensors at distant rocks, although there is plenty of scientific value in that, but properly living there, and making space travel routine.
Well, for that, you need solar power and really good batteries. What’d you know, Elon is leading the field with Tesla.
Where do the electric cars fit in? Rovers. In the probable future, Tesla will be making a range of planetary vehicles, Martian ore trucks, lunar tourist buses – and electricity is certainly better than combustion engines in environments with not enough oxygen to, you know, sustain combustion.
I mean, they did launch a Tesla Roadster towards Mars. Wink wink, nudge nudge!
SpaceX ships are designed to be multi-purpose. It’s not just the BFR, which will simultaneously be a heavy launch vehicle, a tanker, an orbital debris cleanup “space shark”, the solidification of a Bond villain’s dream, and a rapid intercontinental transport system for Earth. Even the smaller Dragon V2 capsule is more than a crew and cargo transport for the ISS (or a better station yet to be built – wait for the next article) – it’s also a lunar/planetary lander. Hint to the wise: side door.
By the way, naming anything rocket-related “V2” is master troll.
What about the tunnels, though? Surely the Boring Company does not tie into Mars plans? Heh.
Our best shot at bases on Mars (and everywhere else in the solar system) is living underground. That way, instead of hauling whole buildings to Mars, we just send the excavation equipment. The payload bay on the Big
Fucking Falcon Rocket can fit a tunnelling drill. I promise you Elon is planning to bring one over – although his will probably have, like, lasers. Then we dig out an underground base and reinforce it using (modified) local materials. Such underground living, on top of being considerably more spacious, also provides better radiation protection than living in a tent on the surface of Mars.
Martians gonna be hobbits for a while.
Boring is going to be anything but boring. In fact, it’s key to building anywhere near the size of colony we need to make Mars truly viable. Surface villas can come later, when there’s local manufacturing, and perhaps terraforming.
So much for The Boring Company being an inexplicable diversion. When in doubt, assume everything Elon does is dual (or more) use.
Even the recent Falcon Heavy cum car launch – it was a rocket test and good advertising for two of Musk’s companies, sure. That’s two uses already. But consider Starman, the super cool test dummy who came dressed in the experimental SpaceX spacesuit.
Ground control to Captain Obvious
Better, they’re testing it in open space, under conditions it is unlikely to actually be used in – being a flight suit rather than an EVA suit – just like you test elevators with more weight than they will ever be hauling to know their true capabilities and limits.
Even when the suit is not designed to be worn outside, it’s nice to know that it can – and how long and how safely.
(I hope Elon is reading this, didn’t fit the suit with sensors, and is going like “oh my fucking god I’m such a dork” now – which by the way, Elon, you totes are. The best kind.)
Also, probably Tesla batteries in space. That’s four uses of a single launch.
Speaking of batteries and power, space humans are going to be solar powered for the foreseeable future, since we’re rather wisely not keen on hauling nuclear reactors across the solar system, and more worryingly through Earth’s atmosphere, and sleeping next to them on Mars.
The only hypothetical alternative is fusion, which, barring an unexpected major breakthrough, is probably a century away in any useful, compact form.
(Not to hate on ITER, but actually yes, to totally hate on ITER, entrusting such an important project to the French, who quickly created an opaque bureaucracy that overshoots already gigantic budgets by hundreds of percent and never delivers anything useful, was not the best idea.)
In general, energy generation in space goes like this:
Inner system: solar.
Outer system: nuclear. Sunlight is not strong enough that far out. Though we’ll probably have fusion or something better before we even properly go there – travel times are obnoxious, and there’s jackshit interesting or valuable enough out there, except aliens, to justify crewed missions with current technology.
Where possible: geothermal, and burning hydrocarbons with oxygen (Titan has lakes of liquid methane and ethane that surpass the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, making it a possible fuel source for the outer system).
Elon has a few other things going on – like Hyperloop, which he only proposed and is not personally pursuing, but there’s an obvious tie-in with the Boring Company. Whoever bites on the idea is likely to send business Elon’s way. Heh.
As for OpenAI and Neuralink, they are defensive measures: AI is probably the most dangerous thing that could break our shit right now, so we better insure against that. Sticking with the “Elon is building an elephant” metaphor, OpenAI is an anti-poaching force.
So to recap:
Elon Musk isn’t doing twenty things, he’s doing exactly one thing, from multiple sides, building out the whole machinery for 1) making humans multiplanetary and 2) making life on Earth sustainable and nicer. Contrary to the angry errors of some terrestrial environmentalists, the two goals are aligned, and the tools for both almost perfectly overlap.
I love it when things come together.
There’s one thing he isn’t doing that we’re gonna need in space – automated, AI-optimised hydroponic farming, which is the only practical way to feed humans in space. Well, lucky for us, where “us” means the human race, I’m doing this 😉.
Elon is playing tic-tac-toe for the best possible future for humanity, lining up victory from multiple angles for a final clicking together of the master plan. An inexperienced player might be baffled, “why the fuck did he put that there?”, but five turns later, it’s “oooooh!”
It’s strategic encirclement of humanity’s most pressing issues, and building an interlocking, synergistic platform to punch existential risk in the face and open a better future for all of us.
I like it.
If you enjoyed this article, you might consider buying me a beer.
If you didn’t, you should buy me a ticket to Mars.