SpaceX: Humanity’s future or Elon Musk’s vanity project?

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Credit: Newsweek

Egotistical or exciting? Elon Musk is a headline-maker, for sure. Perhaps that means that some of the technological magic of SpaceX is lost in the media vacuum.

It’s 50 years since man first landed on the moon, a crowning achievement of our species technologically and one of the most culturally defining moments of a century.

In 1969, NASA landed human beings on a satellite that hangs in the sky with processing power 1,300 times smaller than that of a Nokia 3310. What on Earth – or off of it, for that matter – could we be capable of in 2019?

In the 1960s, NASA’s dreams of placing a flag on the moon were as much a statement of intent: a bombastic flexing of ego to some, brutally branded by New Scientist at the time as an “empty, obsessional quest”. Today, we don’t have an immediate urge to return to the scene; it’s dangerous for starters, we’ve already done it once and there are much bigger technological journeys to be had back on Earth. Surely it would take one hell of an ego to want to re-spark the space race.

Enter Elon Musk: producer of PayPal, part-time rap dabbler and the friendly/frosty face of mind-blowing tech. If anyone is mad enough – narcissistic even – to believe in establishing a colony on a rock beyond our comfortable, breathable atmosphere, it’s Musk: at least according to some.

“Elon’s attitude is to beat everyone,” a former executive once remarked of the entrepreneur. He’s been criticised for how he takes criticism and apparently doesn’t like to be proven wrong. He’s a very public CEO of multiple ventures, capable of easily explaining high tech concepts over a joint with Joe Rogan, he’s comfortable with his celebrity status and high-profile pop star girlfriend. He also works 100 hours a week, has a photographic memory and sometimes spent up to 10 hours a day reading as a child: it’s easy to see why he beguiles and befuddles.

There are Iron Man comparisons. Elon Musk is a rebel without a clear cause to some. However, it’s fairly undeniable to equally label him a determined visionary for such an uncertain era. Just as the 1960s brought political hostility and fear for our future, the present day is presenting more unpredictability.

Musk and his SpaceX brand are not just providing a sci-fi flavoured distraction to real-life reports on the news, they are surfing the silver waves of contemporary technology to make one more giant step for mankind: this time, the potential to actually stay on an extraterrestrial world that we visit.

SpaceX embraces AI

Elon Musk is famously wary of artificial intelligence, despite his business pursuits in the subject. Like a horror movie fan who hides behind the sofa yet can’t resist a fix, the billionaire is behind the advancements of brain implants, has invested in DeepMind and wants cars to be pedal-less AI boxes we fully entrust our road safety to in the near future.

Space exploration is perhaps not as glamorous as the movies tell us. The devil has to be in the detail when it comes to exo-exploration: that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed in half a century. When Musk demonstrated SpaceX’s rocket capabilities by jettisoning his own Tesla into space, it may have been a grandiose and meme-worthy example of what SpaceX could do; it neglected, however, to highlight some of the finer aspects of the company’s work.

If the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multi-planet species, I find that incredibly depressing.

Elon Musk

It’s perhaps no surprise that AI is a prominent technology within SpaceX’s headquarters. SpaceX sent the first-ever AI robot into space. CIMON – or Crew Interactive Mobile Companion – was essentially a floating ball with a screen on one side that acted as an intergalactic Alexa, capable of displaying videos to crew members to help with complex procedures. True to the philosophies of both space travel and machine learning, CIMON’s experience beyond Earth will inform robots of the future.

In space, there are many applicable usages for tech similar to that used by Tesla. SpaceX Falcon 9 has an Autonomous Flight Safety System; AI can be used to correct flight paths and assess trajectory data. The company also uses deep learning to optimise landings and in future, one of the more obvious usages will be to integrate AI into spacesuits.

AI has the capability to monitor vital signs and help keep an astronaut alive; a particular chip could learn about a particular wearer of the suit in the longterm too, providing personalised insights.

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CIMON is an AI straight from science fiction / Credit: Washington Post

If SpaceX proceeds to try and build its destined colony on Mars, Musk will pass the contract to former SpaceX subsidiary, The Boring Company. The Boring Company will likely use artificial intelligence when digging underground tunnels on alien planets too; programmed autonomous technology is already used on Earth in agriculture, a practice that requires a lot of geometric plotting that doesn’t have to be undertaken by a human being.

It’s really not a stretch to imagine Neuralink being the most efficient form of communication for outer space. Whilst SpaceX isn’t a company that centres its universe around artificial intelligence, it is a more than complimentary technology that is helping to develop research and will likely be integral to our foray out into the galaxy.

Musk is disrupting the aerospace industry

At a distance, SpaceX might come off as a zany passion project. A billionaire who made his money from internet banking, Elon Musk has an explicit interest in pop culture: he made sure the first Tesla in space was playing David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ and the Falcon 9 gets its name from Han Solo’s mode of transport in Star Wars. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of assumption to see this business as a high-value play-thing of a science fiction fan with the net worth to make fantasy a reality.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 when Musk saw a gap in the market that NASA wasn’t exploiting: this was and always has been a business venture like any other to him. In 2010, it became the first private company to launch a payload into orbit and return it to Earth intact, a feat previously reserved for governmental agencies.

Around 80% of the parts in any SpaceX rocket are made by the company themselves, making rocket flight more affordable than nearly anyone else doing it, not to mention how the Falcon Heavy is perhaps the most powerful rocket seen since the 1970s. It now has $4.2 billion in contracts from NASA alone. This is a serious project.

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However, perhaps the most amazing thing to many is that this corporation has managed to get this far without the input of NASA, without tax grants and all in a timeframe of just over 15 years. It’s not exactly the easiest industry to crack.

The space race is no longer straight knock-out round between the US and Russia: that’s in part thanks to Elon Musk. It does, however, pose some odd questions. Human settlers on foreign worlds may well have to pledge allegiance to a private company’s version of the law. What does it mean for our society, what does it say about our nature, if capitalism outgrows the globe, exactly? Are we going to reach peak dystopia if climate change isn’t eradicated and only the rich can afford to leave a boiling rock for one freshly mined?

Nothing’s changed much since 1969. Our current times are strange, to say the least. Our future is as unGooglable as ever. Our destination is quite possibly in space, at least if all those mad billionaires get their way, right? That’s the direction Elon Musk has been looking in since reading science fiction all those years ago.

With any great sci-fi story though, the journey is equally as fascinating as the destination. SpaceX is doing incredible things technologically, after all.

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Luke Conrad

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