Why SpaceX matters


Unless you were sleeping under a rock today you saw what SpaceX did. I don’t really follow Musk closely. My friends in Silicon Valley speak highly of him. He shares an interest in some of the same topics I do (he’s a fan of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence). But in general on an analytical level I think he’s a long-term thinker who may seem crazy, but actually is simply less pedestrian in his focus than the typical billionaire.

T. Boone Pickens has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Oklahoma State University…with the majority going to its athletic programs. And yet to my knowledge, Pickens’ philanthropy has attracted less opprobrium than Musk’s focus on quixotic topics such as hostile strong AI. Musk is weird. Pickens just furthers the cause of traumatic head injury so that his fellow Okhlahomans can cheer on Saturday.

Today at work one of my coworkers hooked up the conference screen to the coverage of the SpaceX launch and landing. I had one eye on the screen…when I saw the descent of the two boosters which landed successfully. I literally jumped out of my chair and ran over to watch them land. It was like seeing a CGI “artist’s conception” of the future of space travel come to life!

As many of you know I am not a fan of Joseph P Kennedy II. When I was a child in the 1980s he gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives where he argued against funding for space exploration because of the opportunity cost in relation to social spending. His delivery was quite appallingly poetic from what I recall, something like “why must we take food from the poor so that spaceships can sail high above us?”

Because I was a science nerd with a child’s lack of understanding of the “real world,” where some people were poor and destitute, my reflex was very negative. I still remember Kennedy’s pained expression and can feel my rictus of rage. It’s a flashbulb memory for me. I probably didn’t appreciate the substance of Kennedy’s argument, but the spirit of it was clear.

Some might argue that we don’t need to make a choice. But what if we did? What if space didn’t return much on our investment?

These are fundamentally ancient arguments. In China, during Warring States periods there was a stylized debate between the partisans of Mozi, who we can characterize as a utilitarian, and the followers of Confucius, as to the value of frivolities such as music. Those who aligned with Mozi were fixated on human well-being on the most general and universal scale possible. Music and other cultural productions were pure aesthetic consumption which took away from labor which might otherwise have gone into alleviating human suffering. In the end, history weighed in on the side of the Confucians…with the exception of Communist revisionists in the 20th century.

Musk, and Jeff Bezos, envisage us as an inter-planetary (and perhaps extra-planetary) species. This is laudable so as to avoid the risk of mass extinction on a single “lifeboat Earth.” But perhaps humans becoming inter-planetary is like art? Perhaps it is part of our telos?

These are ideas explored in science fiction. In Against the Fall of Night Arthur C. Clarke writes about a human race which is immortal and geriatric, inward-looking and lacking the spirit of curiosity that defines us, except for a young boy named Alvin. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man prophesies a pedestrian future untouched by the chiliastic passions we see today in Islamic fundamentalism or the dragons of pre-liberal nationalism awakening from their slumber. Space offers a way out of these two visions of conflict and ennui. The eternal frontier.

There is also a deeper evolutionary historical framework for understanding why we are fascinated by the possibilities of space, crazy as they are. Our own modern human lineage was the first to cross over from Sundaland to Sahul. No matter whether you accept a new date of 65,000 years BP, or the more traditional date of 45,000 years, modern humans show up in Australia very early after their exit en masse from Africa.

These humans crossed 90 kilometers of open sea. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond proposed that Australia may have been settled by a pregnant woman who clung to a floating tree branch. Genetics tells us this is false. Oceanian peoples went through a bottleneck, but not such an extreme one.

The implication is that the proto-Oceanian people who left Sundaland for Sahul did so as a unit, impelled by some cultural human prerogative. We may think that going to Mars is crazy, but we know Mars exists. What would have driven these proto-Oceanian peoples eastward into the great blue ocean? And how did they go east during the Pleistocene, before seafaring traditions?

The lesson from prehistory is that modern humans are a crazy species. We journey across the deep blue sea into the unknown. To a great extent, this is irrational for the groups and individuals who engage in this activity. The vast majority of voyagers probably expired. And yet something within us kept pushing some of us until we made it.

In a different lingo, one might say that staying home, focusing on safety and comfort, is a local maximum. International space agencies and private firms such as Lockheed Martin were chasing the local maxima. That was safe and defensible. Only someone as crazy as Elon Musk would push SpaceX into an endeavor which was insane and likely to fail. And yet sometimes humans don’t fail, and crazy is actually saner than we could ever imagine.

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16 thoughts on “Why SpaceX matters

  1. Bravo to Musk. Falcon Heavy took longer than expected (he was originally hoping to have it ready by 2012), but it’s totally worth it now that it might be ready for launches. The possibilities it provides are incredible with its payload capacity and lower launch costs, assuming anyone takes advantage of that (which NASA should be doing).

    I don’t know whether we will have any sort of major off-world base or colony in the 21st century, but I strongly believe we’ll have at least one in the next three centuries, and more to come after that. Falcon Heavy is a major step along the way for that.

    In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond proposed that Australia may have been settled by a pregnant woman who clung to a floating tree branch. Genetics tells us this is false. Oceanian peoples went through a bottleneck, but not such an extreme one.

    That’s a weird scenario to imagine. I’m glad it’s not true, too. For Australia to be settled that way would mean that either the pregnant woman had twins who mated with each other, or she mated with her male offspring as soon as he reached sexual maturity to produce more children.

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  2. If you follow SpaceX’s various announcements, the Falcon Heavy is no longer really a step toward Mars. Despite its capacities, the constraints of the market and necessities for real Mars expeditions have conspired to make it nearly obsolete as soon as it launched.

    For Earth-bound payloads, the much improved Falcon9 block5 (which should enter service this year) basically can launch almost every satellite on the market, save for heavy satellites on a direct to GEO launch (which is basically one, maybe two military payloads per year).

    For more distant ones, SpaceX has reoriented its strategy on the Big Falcon Rocket (a number of people still replace the middle F word) which expands the 60 ton capacity limit for Falcon Heavy to a 150 ton upper limit, and would be fully reusable. The FH launch failed to recover the central booster (not enough fuel), the second stage and fairing are never recovered, so the BFR, despite being overpowered, would end up cheaper to use for loads that would work for a FH.

    So, in all probability, the Heavy will never be used for Mars.

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  3. Razib, you’re in good company. Sophocles wrote your same blog post, 441 B.C.-style:

    Many wonders, many terrors,
    But none more wonderful than the human race,
    Or more dangerous
    This creature travels on a winter gale
    Across the silver sea,
    Shadowed by big-surging waves,
    While on Earth, grandest of the gods,
    He grinds the deathless, tireless land away,
    Turning and turning the plow
    From year to year, behind driven horses.

    Light headed birds he catches
    And takes them away in legions. Wild beasts
    Also fall prey to him.
    And all that is born to live beneath the sea
    Is thrashing in his woven nets.
    For he is Man, and he is cunning.
    He has invented ways to take control
    Of beasts that range mountain meadows:
    Taken down the shaggy-necked horses,
    The tireless mountain bulls,
    And put them under the yoke.

    Language and a mind swift as the wind
    For making plans –
    These he has taught himself –
    And the character to live in cities under law.
    He’s learned to take cover from a frost
    And escape sharp arrows of sleet.
    He has the means to handle every need,
    Never steps toward the future without the means.
    Except for Death: He’s got himself no relief from that,
    Though he puts every mind to seeking cures
    For plagues that are hopeless.

    He has cunning contivance,
    Skill surpassing hope,
    And so he slithers into wickedness sometimes,
    Other times into doing good.
    If he honors the law of the land
    And the oath-bound justice of the gods,
    Then his city shall stand high.
    But no city for him if he turns shameless out of daring
    He will be no guest of mine,
    He will never share my thoughts,
    If he goes wrong.”

    Sophocles, “Antigone” Chorus lines 332-375 (p. 16-18) Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff, Theban Plays, 2003

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  4. T. Boone Pickens has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Oklahoma State University…with the majority going to its athletic programs. And yet to my knowledge, Pickens’ philanthropy has attracted less opprobrium than Musk’s focus on quixotic topics such as hostile strong AI. Musk is weird. Pickens just furthers the cause of traumatic head injury so that his fellow Okhlahomans can cheer on Saturday.

    Surely you must realize that Pickens gave to the cause of tribal unity and would therefore receive acclaim whereas Musk’s investment is seen at best quixotic and at worst as a playboy (sci-) fantasy.

    But perhaps humans becoming inter-planetary is like art? Perhaps it is part of our telos?

    Absolutely! We humans – at least a fraction of us – must always strive for the unknown and the seemingly unreachable.

    I don’t mean to make light of poverty and destitution – some of my kids and I volunteer to build homes for the poor. We see the pain of it and help to alleviate it. But there will be poverty and destitution with us always, no matter how much public funds are lavished on them. Even if we were to devote 100% of the tax revenues, they will persist in some form. So the argument that we can’t strive for loftier things so long as the poor remain is not only a flawed argument, but also a very destructive one that shackles human creativity.

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  5. Perhaps a typhoon brought Sahul flora and fauna to Sundaland. The people of Sundaland would have recognised this flotsam as alien and realised that there was more out there.

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  6. All for space exploration, but not enthusiastic about the drive to privatize it. It took only eight years from Kennedy’s 1961 speech to have men walk on the moon. Fifty years later and commercial enterprise only manages to get satellites into low Earth orbit. I’m just not impressed.

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  7. “But in general on an analytical level I think he’s a long-term thinker who may seem crazy, but actually is simply less pedestrian in his focus than the typical billionaire.
    T. Boone Pickens has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Oklahoma State University…”

    Peter Thiel jumped to mind reading your first sentence quoted above. All the money he put in sea steading institute for libertarian idealogical reasons or even more pedestrian reasons like Hogan lawsuit.
    Definitely not a transcendental billionaire like Musk.

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  8. @jamie b

    Private contractors have always provided the rockets for NASA and other government launches. The big difference with Musk’s rockets is that they’re so much cheaper in launch costs than earlier stuff.

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  9. What would have driven these proto-Oceanian peoples eastward into the great blue ocean?

    Perhaps they were told, “Leave, or die.”

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  10. . Foraging opportunistic species

    humans had been in central indonesia for 1 million+ years. so it’s not just that. they had to

    1) cross 90 km of open ocean
    2) think to do this

    (both)

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  11. Oklahoma is a blood red state and Pickens is a jerb creator there.

    Musk otoh is a public figure who is naturally hated by many on the right – who are not huge fans of the concept of government subsidized electric cars – and now the left for his refusal to condemn Trump as aggressively as other tech leaders.

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  12. and now the left for his refusal to condemn Trump as aggressively as other tech leaders.

    elon is in peter thiel’s circle of friends. he couldn’t condemn trump aggressively without casting shade on someone who he has been close with for 20 years.

    also, SJWs have hated elon’s affect for a while. he’s too blatantly white.

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  13. Congratulations to the SpaceX grunts who toiled in the trenches to make that entertaining display happen. “International space agencies and private firms such as Lockheed Martin” don’t “chase”. They only go where political leaders point them toward. NASA and Lockheed Martin could he easily done the things SpaceX is doing if we Americans had elected visionary leaders to point them toward doing those things. SpaceX is ultimately another government contractor, but it has no stockholders demanding a return on their investment like Lockheed Martin has. SpaceX can fold back the revenue from it’s government and commercial launch contracts into these kind of spectacular, but really technologically pointless stunts. SpaceX basically strapped three workhorse Dragon boosters together and presented the bundle as a new rocket. Yeah, the near simultaneous landing were visually impressive, but I have sent those boosters land before.

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