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.