It’s dangerous to idolize Elon Musk

Here’s the Roadster heading into interplanetary space as if it were some kind of DeLorean. (Credit: SpaceX)

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, CEO of Tesla, co-founder of SolarCity, and proposer of Hyperloop, holds many titles. He isn’t a superhero or a savior, but you might think otherwise as you see the fawning coverage he continually receives.

Musk and his SpaceX colleagues have accomplished great things, including successfully launching the Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday, currently the world’s most powerful rocket (until NASA’s competitor comes online next year). Musk said he felt “giddy” before the launch, and space journalists appeared to feel the same way, gushing over the rocket and the man behind it. Space exploration is indeed exciting, and SpaceX plays an important role in it, but it serves no one well to idolize Musk and put him on a pedestal.

SpaceX’s achievements have arguably encouraged NASA in the development of their Space Launch System and their reusable space capsules. And with his other ventures, he has spurred the electric vehicle market and the solar panel industry, and he has pushed high-speed rail advocates in California and the East Coast to improve their plans. But he is only human, his budgets and schedules are often unrealistic, and his visions for the future are not shared by everyone.

Nevertheless, many people imbue him with great powers, as if he will single-handedly combat climate change, solve urban traffic problems, right the world’s wrongs, and explore the galaxy at the same time. Even journalists have gotten caught up in Musk’s cult following, but this attitude is neither accurate nor healthy.

Space exploration involves thousands of hard-working scientists and engineers and a dozen space agencies worldwide. And NASA and the European Space Agency and all the others are accountable to the public and Congress in a way that Musk never is. If he changes his mind against exploring Mars or advancing solar power, or if his ideas to terraform the Red Planet or transform public transportation raise major concerns, no one can stop him or vote him out of his position. But no one should have that kind of power.

Furthermore, though a darling of the left in the US, Musk is not exactly a progressive leader. He boarded the Donald Trump ship for half a year before finally abandoning him over the Paris climate accord. He gave Trump more legitimacy in the process while not really accomplishing anything — other than pushing for a tax repatriation policy that would benefit him and other Silicon Valley CEOs hoarding billions in profit overseas. He has also opposed Tesla’s pro-union workers and dismissed employees’ claims of racial and sexual harassment in the workplace.

He may not be a visionary, but like Steve Jobs, Musk has shown his savviness at marketing, especially promoting his personal brand. He has cultivated a cool image, and every issue he comments on and every word he utters becomes major news. If, on the other hand, rivals like Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson fired a massive rocket with an expensive car lashed to it, it would be criticized as lavish excess. But Musk wins more praise than Iron Man.

Musk is no villain, but through his wealth and achievements, he has arrogated to himself massive power, with an ambition and arrogance to match. Anyone with such power should be held under scrutiny and accountable for their actions. They certainly should be viewed through a critical lens, but that so far is rarely done.

I think many people don’t exactly share Musk’s vision of space. At times, he seems more like a capitalist playboy, and he’s more concerned with his image and bottom line. For me, however, encouraging humanity to unite in the enterprise of space exploration and discovery — rather than line up behind one or a couple rich white men — should be our top priority. The future of space shouldn’t be led by him alone, and if we cheer too enthusiastically and embrace his SpaceX program wholeheartedly, celebrating rocket launches becomes tacit support for his, and not our, vision.

Thoughts on the Doomsday Clock ticking forward

[Here’s my two cents on the Doomsday Clock, building on a Facebook post I made last week.]

After the United States’s atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the risks of nuclear disaster and the dangers it posed to humanity became very real in the public imagination. The Doomsday Clock has drawn attention to these threats ever since, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been inching closer and closer to midnight.

Aboveground Nuclear Test conducted at the Nevada Test Site on 25 May 1953. (Source: Nevada Department of Environmental Protection)

As I predicted, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated the clock last week by moving it from two and a half to two minutes until midnight, the nearest humans have been to apocalypse and annihilation. It would put 2018 in a grim tie with 1953, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. developed the hydrogen bomb and heightened the Cold War.

In an attempt to make the Doomsday Clock more punctual, a decade ago the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ science and security board incorporated climate change threats in their assessments. In the following years, they have also referenced emerging technologies in the life sciences — mainly gene editing and gene drives — as well as killer robots, cyber attacks, and bioweapons.

Nuclear brinkmanship between the unpredictable governments of U.S. and North Korea, combined with the possibility of proliferation in the Middle East if the Iran nuclear agreement unravels, have helped push the minute hand farther last year. Now we have the Trump administration continuing Obama’s ill-advised policy of modernizing and expanding the US nuclear arsenal. And like his predecessor, Trump continues the Cold War-era policy of having nukes on hair-trigger alert. Then we had the false alarm of a missile alert in Hawaii, highlighting just how quickly a situation could escalate and weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed. [Update on 2 Feb.: The Pentagon today announced plans to develop low-yield nuclear weapons — “only” as explosive as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — for ballistic and cruise missiles launched from submarines. They also said that nuclear weapons could be used in response to non-nuclear attacks.]

Simultaneously, global warming continues relentlessly, and though it’s a long-term problem, in the short term the time for action is ticking down, especially as the Trump administration retreats on efforts to combat climate change. So I think it makes sense for the clock to move forward, as we’re in more danger than before.

Nevertheless, it’s challenging to assess this dizzying array of global perils and potential threats together. Furthermore, how can we simultaneously evaluate or even rank these threats to civilization — while evaluating how well or poorly our society is currently addressing them? (One might also ask who is left out of the Doomsday Clock, since billions of people in poverty and environmental refugees often bear the brunt of disasters, but they’re threatened by smaller scale disasters than can be registered by a clock attuned to global threats to humanity.)

In any case, I don’t think we have to view all this entirely with doom and gloom. Just as a handful of people (and not just Trump) can push that minute hand forward, by working together to stop global warming and by focusing on diplomacy, we can pull ourselves back from the edge of the precipice.