Like many, I’ve been watching the developments in Boca Chica, Texas, with great interest. SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s companies, is building the “Starship Hopper,” a shorter and simpler version of a spacecraft that could revolutionize space travel. Seeing images of the mostly complete test vehicle, clad in shiny stainless steel, makes me feel like a kid again.
These are exciting times to be alive. We are at the beginning stages of the electric car revolution. We have access to much of the knowledge of our species at our fingertips. Rockets are being launched, and they mostly return to the ground for the next adventure. There’s serious talk of going back to the moon, then to Mars, and beyond. But much of this seemed like it might not really happen just a few years ago.
While I can’t speak for other generations, I can speak for at least part of mine. I was born in the first half of the 1980s. Growing up, we saw all sorts of marvelous futures depicted in fiction and in speculative non-fiction. The Shuttle program ran through my childhood, and the Apollo program wasn’t such a distant memory for others in the family. Electric vehicles, flying cars, AI, and laser guns … all were shown to be normal at some point in the early 21st century. Perhaps the most precise predictions came from the second Back to the Future film, depicting a high-tech 2015, complete with toy hoverboards for children.
As a kid, I also saw the dystopian fiction and non-fictional predictions for a possible depressing future. Environmental collapse, authoritarian regimes, and technology that serves to enslave or kill us rather than empower us, were common in many films. The Terminator might hunt us down, or maybe we’d become human batteries unknowingly living in a simulation. There was plenty of fear for the future as well — but the common element still remained: massive technological achievement, for better or worse.
While we didn’t see a massively dystopian future, we didn’t get the amazing future that the good or bad films and books presented. Instead of getting missions to Mars and beyond, we watched the Shuttle program go through a disaster, run some more missions, and then come to an end — with nothing to replace it! The electric car was off to a promising start, but later killed off. We saw the horror of the 9/11 attacks followed by the PATRIOT Act, and what seems to be an endless War on Terror. Government got caught spying on countless citizens. We’ve seen racial strife, environmental disaster, and drug addiction epidemics.
It wasn’t all bad, though. We got much better computers. We got smartphones. The electric car was dead, but we got better, more efficient gas cars, both hybrid and not. We got semi-intelligent assistants like Siri and Alexa. But we still sometimes feel cheated. There are no deep space missions to follow. No space outposts on other celestial bodies. Until only relatively recently, there were no electric cars and there are still no real flying cars.
I may sound like a total fangirl saying this, but bear with me: Elon Musk is giving us our future back.
Singlehandedly? Of course not. But without competition from Tesla, none of the other manufacturers would have bothered at all with electric vehicles. We still don’t have a flying car like the movies on the horizon, but it’s looking more and more like the next Roadster might be able to do “short hops” with the SpaceX thruster package, so we may yet see the flying cars we were supposed to have.
Nobody else was bothering to try to reuse rockets like SpaceX, and nobody else is ambitiously pursuing anything as amazing as the Starship. While we still aren’t seeing faster than light travel, we have a strong possibility of going anywhere in the world in around 30 minutes. In our lifetimes, we may actually see colonies on the moon, Mars, and perhaps the moons of Jupiter.
I could go on all day, but I’ll try to be short. He’s also working hard on artificial intelligence (and keeping it safe for us), underground transportation, brain-computer interfaces, and broadband internet for the entire planet.
My generation watched our hopes and dreams go from looking promising, to looking like they weren’t going to happen in our lifetimes, and then come back again. For this, we largely have Elon Musk and his teams of hard workers to thank.
I know Elon Musk isn’t perfect, but we’d be fools to take him and his companies for granted. If we do, other countries might not. From what I’ve read, Musk chose to move from his native country of South Africa to the United States because it seemed like the most innovative and successful place to chase his dreams.
However, we all know that there are entrenched interests who would like to see him fall, and wouldn’t mind quickly extending society’s foot in his path to make it happen. There are people who stand to make billions if the electric car revolution collapses. Others would love to replace SpaceX with more expensive “solutions” that enrich them and theirs at everybody’s expense. I’m not saying Musk deserves a free pass to do whatever he wants in life with no consequences, but I am saying that we need to make sure he continues to get the same freedom of opportunity that we all are theoretically supposed to get in the United States.
Musk wouldn’t be the first innovator this happened to. A quick (and cartoonish) look at the interactions of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison is quite instructive.
If we allow these entrenched interests to corrupt our institutions and weaponize them against innovators like Elon Musk, it probably won’t hurt him greatly in the long run, but it would probably rob us, again, of the amazing future we could have had. At the very minimum, it would be a loss for the United States and a gain for another country that knows the value of who we were throwing away. Even China, with its much more authoritarian government, knows to appreciate Musk. It was not only unusually flexible with him to break ground on a factory, but offered him a permanent resident card — a privilege not extended to many foreigners without family ties to the country.
If we fail to see what we have until it’s gone, somebody else will not. That would be a sad day not only for my generation, but for my children and theirs. We need to appreciate the innovators we have among us, flaws and all, if we want to truly be great in the long run.