A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is launched from Cape Canaveral. Photo by NASA
Elon Musk and the rise of Silicon Valley’s strange trickle-down science
There are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity. Do we have a future, and if so, how much and what kind? For most people, it’s easier to feel these existential concerns for our species than it is to do something about them. But some are taking action. On 27 September 2016, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a bold, direct claim: that, in order to survive an inevitable extinction event, humans would need to ‘become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species’. Pulses raced and the media swooned. Headlines appeared in the business and technology press about Musk’s plan to save humanity. Experts and laypeople alike debated details of the rockets, spacecraft and fuel needed for Musk’s journey to Mars. The excitement was palpable, and it was evident at the press conference. During the Q&A that followed the announcement, Musk said that his goal was to inspire humanity. One audience member yelled: ‘[Musk] inspires the shit out of us!’ Another offered him a kiss.
Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older and recurring social problem. What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns? Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth, rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay. Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place’. Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist.
His announcement parallels an earlier moment in the history of spaceflight, the Apollo missions of the 1960s to send American men to the Moon. Musk himself made the comparison, when he described the Apollo missions as ‘probably the greatest achievements of humanity’. The US space program got a major boost from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, especially the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. The extraordinary achievement of Sputnik pushed US scientists and political leaders to try to re-establish the country’s scientific and technological supremacy. The Apollo missions began a few years later, with President John F Kennedy’s bold declaration in 1961, and culminated with the manned Moon landing of Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969. The program captured the imagination of the nation, indeed the world, and remains an inspiring story of teamwork, wonder, technological achievement and ingenuity.
The lore of Apollo 11 as a Cold War triumph also serves to direct attention away from some of the less glorious aspects of the US at the time. Many contemporary Americans viewed the Apollo program with deep skepticism, and some were even morally critical. One such critic was the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968.
Before his death, King had turned his political activism toward the problems of economic inequality and poverty. Abernathy stayed with this focus, and continued to organise people around addressing economic issues for black and white Americans. In July 1969, with the Apollo 11 launch, Abernathy saw an opportunity to keep economic justice on the nation’s conscience. He announced a march to Cape Canaveral in Florida, the rocket launch site. Accompanied by a few hundred people, Abernathy asked for a meeting with NASA. He wanted to win NASA’s support and technical expertise in the fight against poverty, hunger and social problems. Abernathy told NASA officials, as one of them recalled: ‘The money for the space program should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless.’ To NASA’s credit, their historian and Smithsonian curator Roger Launius has documented and published on Abernathy’s protests and his dialogue with NASA.
Abernathy’s insight about the priorities of a country that could send men into space while millions of Americans lacked medical care, shelter and food found a new voice in Gil Scott-Heron. The poet and musician, who had cultivated a reputation for his socially charged spoken-word performances, debuted a new piece: ‘Whitey on the Moon’ (1970):
A rat done bit my sister Nell
(With Whitey on the Moon)
Her face and arms began to swell
(And Whitey’s on the Moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill
(But Whitey’s on the Moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
(While Whitey’s on the Moon)
But neither Abernathy’s protest nor Scott-Heron’s anthem moved the country’s political priorities from space exploration to the provision of housing or health care. US adventures into outer space – white men in expensive, gleaming white spaceships – captivated popular attention and support in ways that urban poverty did not. Americans continued to send their tax revenues to the heavens…