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With Elon Musk to Mars

Yesterday’s much-anticipated announcement from Elon Musk of an outline plan to take humans to Mars deserves a good deal more attention that it has been getting. It comes at a time of deep crisis for American democracy, when the very best that our political parties have on offer, aside from standard-issue gridlock on The Hill, is a pair of Medicare-eligible candidates with agendas deeply locked into the past.

Along comes a man with his eyes fixed firmly on the future. And yet he’s also a man developing innovative and successful businesses for today. And he’s also a man not unaware that there are negatives lurking in our passage up the Moore’s Law curve – he signed on to the infamous AI warning letter with Stephen Hawking et al. (a move that earned them a bizarre and frankly ridiculous rebuke from one of our fellow-DC think tanks with the award of Luddite of the Year – for daring to be candid about technology risk, something we need more not less of from our tech gurus).

His vision entails a rocket 3.5 times more powerful than the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Of course, that was back in our grandparents’ day, when (ahem) the United States actually had a space program. But it goes far beyond a “mars-shot.” Unlike the United States back in moon-shot days (and one reason we never went beyond them) he has a strategy in mind. The plan is from smaller beginnings to build up to a fleet of 1,000 spaceships carrying many thousands of colonists heading to Mars en masse. And the point we do need to note is that this is not Asimov the visionary writer, it is Musk the visionary engineer-entrepreneur, who is already leading the world in electric cars and battery technology, and already building and launching rockets.

It will be interesting to see whether space features at all in the debates for the presidency. I’d love to have Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump sit down for 90 minutes with Mr. Musk and talk about the future. It’s candidates who could do that who will, perhaps, one day, actually lead us forward.

Nigel Cameron

Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies
Washington, DC 20002
September 28, 2016