Guest essay by Eric Worrall
If the “Fire and Fury” Musk excerpt is true, Elon Musk appears to be rapidly adapting to the spending priorities of the Trump era – downplaying his climate ventures, advancing proposals for himself to be at the helm of the Trump push for exploration missions to other planets. But in my opinion there will be a terrible price to pay, if Elon Musk receives his free money.
Elon Musk pitched Trump on SpaceX’s mission to colonize other planets
BRYAN LOGAN, KIERAN CORCORAN, DAVE MOSHER
JAN 5, 2018
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sought to pique Donald Trump’s interest in space colonization shortly after he was elected.
Musk has previously asserted that mortals need to leave Earth in order to preserve humanity.
Among the many claims made in Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” one passage described a scene at Trump Tower where then-president-elect Trump was taking meetings with tech titans like the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
According to the excerpt, Musk had sought to get Trump interested in SpaceX’s “race to Mars,” ostensibly an effort to keep his company front-of-mind in the broad scope of national space exploration.
Nobody knows for sure how much corporate welfare Musk has secured. Back in 2015, LA Times asserted Musk’s empire was powered by $4.9 billion worth of government grants.
Whatever else he is, Musk has a genius for grabbing and holding the attention of politicians, convincing them to shower his business ventures with vast sums of public money.
President Obama’s generosity with taxpayer’s money helped Elon Musk produce “green” cars only the wealthy could afford.
Much as I want to see expeditions to Mars and beyond, something feels very wrong about this approach. Musk’s planetary exploration venture, if it materializes, might well yield a successful manned expedition to Mars – but Musk’s space venture would be powered by a deluge of taxpayers’ money. The expedition would be a massive source of national pride, but financially it would be a gigantic opportunity cost for taxpayers.
What if we could do something useful, something which could provide value, a demonstration of profitability so compelling that no government would ever have to financially support another space venture?
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is putting a billion dollars per year of his own money into a company called Blue Origin. Blue Origin is focussing on building cheap space launch capability, the keystone of other efforts such as asteroid mining and space tourism.
Bezos is hardly alone – plenty of other investors are taking space seriously. Back in April this year, Goldman Sachs publicly claimed Asteroid mining – recovering high-value metals like Platinum from small Asteroids – might be a lot closer to financial viability than most people believe.
I’m not venturing an opinion as to whether Goldman Sachs is right – but the key point from my point of view is all these people are risking their own money. Not taxpayer’s money. Their own money. Sooner or later, one of these brilliant capitalists will find a way to make it work.
What happens if Musk receives free money? Why do I think there would be “a terrible price to pay”?
In my opinion, the easiest way to kill off this genuine private ecosystem of space venture capitalism would be to dump a deluge of public cash into the hands of just one player, or even a select small group of players. If Elon Musk receives a blank cheque from President Trump, the value of the private investments of all the other entrepreneurs essentially drops to zero. The risk Musk would get there first riding a tsunami of zero risk taxpayer’s cash would simply be too great to ignore. Everyone else would have to pull back until the government stopped funding Musk’s space efforts.
The private effort, the private cash invested by the likes of Bezos, will eventually produce an expedition to Mars, and many other exciting missions. But the private expedition when it comes will be undertaken for sound financial reasons. More than pride, an expedition to Mars mounted by US entrepreneurs using their own money would likely yield a profit, and wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime.
President Trump, the US government, should stick to doing what the USA does best – removing bureaucratic roadblocks and political obstacles, so US based space entrepreneurs can reach for the stars.