Earlier this week, private rocket company SpaceX released a video of something new under the sun: the company’s reusable rocket taking off on its tail, hovering and then landing back on its tail like something out of a Duck Dodgers cartoon. Like the National Post’s Matt Gurney I cheered, and I’m not sure I want to know you if you didn’t. The rocket is part of SpaceX’s plan—as propounded by founder and potential Bond villain Elon Musk—to radically reduce the cost of bringing things to orbit and deep space.
SpaceX isn’t the first to build a reusable rocket like this: the US military’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization tested a similar idea in the early 1990s. But while the Delta Clipper program was killed either by post-Cold War budget cuts or NASA lethargy (depending on who you ask), SpaceX gives every impression of being serious about bringing cheap, reusable access to space to the market.
Because, you see, Elon Musk wants to die on Mars. And if he’s going to spend the billions he made during the dot-com boom, working his way towards a Mars colony that he estimates would need to be 80,000 or so strong is not the worst way to do it. (In a world where John McAfee exists, Elon Musk will likely never make a headline for “eccentric things to do with your money” anymore.)
Musk, to his credit, has said his dream for SpaceX and his electric car company Tesla is explicitly about saving the Earth, not escaping it. Dream no small dreams, indeed. The bigger problem isn’t what Musk wants to do with his money, but rather, what other people will do with what he builds, if he succeeds.
Musk is already a hero to libertarians who see him as the 21st-century incarnation of John Galt and can’t wait to leave all these moochers and takers and people who failed to appreciate the qualities of Bain Capital behind on miserable old Earth. The joke’s on them, of course: if you think the US tax code is bad, you’re going to love living in a place where oxygen has to be metered. Truly believe Mike Bloomberg’s soda policies are the final step towards fascism? You’ll love the early years of food rationing on the Red Planet.
Meanwhile, back on Earth (but not earth), a group of marine enthusiasts have been pushing their alternative escape, seasteading. In their defense, they insist that the idea of building floating communities in the open ocean, free from national regulation, isn’t just a scheme to avoid taxes. This would be more compelling if the original evangelist wasn’t Milton Friedman’s grandson and the big-money donor wasn’t the same guy who spent 2008 and 2012 backing Ron Paul for president.
It must be nice to be so rich that you could seriously entertain the idea of keeping your wealth in an offshore megamansion; international waters are never more than a modest helicopter ride from Los Angeles, after all. For the rest of us, though, it’s enough to make you start rooting for Somali pirates.
Neither of these visions of a billionaire escape plan is terribly likely to succeed. The open ocean is as hostile in its own way as the vacuum of space, and we still don’t have a great record of building structures that can withstand it for long. The good news is that, in failing, they could both do some good to the people who don’t Go Galt.
Even if Musk does crack the cheap access to space he needs to live on Mars, he may not get there for any number of reasons—but modern civilization is already used to the routine use of space-based services (did you use the GPS on your phone today?) and better access can only accelerate that. Whether the seasteaders ever build their floating tax havens or not, there are serious people working on how to grow the food and energy that seven billion people need in the open ocean, and maybe the seasteaders will help in their own way.
It may not be sexy, collecting the rewards from other people trying to push back the frontiers of human settlement. But then, neither is charging the lifeboats when the ship is going down. The latter doesn’t seem to bother some people, so maybe the former shouldn’t bother us.
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Image via the Seasteading Institute