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.