I present to you the strange case of Elon Musk. Whatever he does, his detractors, or at least his minimizers, seem to control the narrative.
When his Falcon Heavy rocket — the largest and most sophisticated flying today — blasted into space on Feb. 6, there should have been a national outpouring of unabated joy.
Yet it only briefly edged out the news coverage of the GOP memo, emanating from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, and its Democratic counter-memo. The greatest show on earth had it all: a rocket you could watch ascending, shedding its reusable stages and flying away, whimsically, with a sports car for a payload.
It was a showcase of American technology and know-how. It was a clear statement that the individual can still triumph in the United States.
President Trump acknowledged the achievement, which was probably hard for him because he and Musk don’t see eye to eye on global warming or much else. Musk’s visions are wildly futuristic, like populating Mars, while Trump is a man firmly rooted in the glories of the United States as an industrial power tethered to past strengths. Also, awkwardly, Musk is an immigrant who might have been kept out under Trump’s policies.
But the general indifference and in some circles antipathy to Musk goes far beyond politics. We embraced Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as tech heroes, the faces of the future. Musk less so or not at all; maybe because we have narrowed our view of what is exciting tech to the internet and its collaterals.
Although he made his first $500 selling a game program when he was 12, and his first billion as a founder of PayPal, Musk’s real claim to fame is as an engineer and physicist. His Tesla electric car may not survive as the industry leader, but today it is out front.
His rocket may not be the future of heavy-lift space vehicles, but it is the leader today: cheaper and with reusable stages. His SolarCity is not alone in seeking to convert idle roofs to electricity sources, but it is a big player. And Musk’s batteries, though disappointing at the outset, may yet make grid-free houses a reality.
Yet Musk’s detractors are legion and effective. I know quite a few and they range from an electric company chairman (who accused him of lying and denounced him to me in the most vociferous tones), to financial seers (who question the viability of any of his companies), to conservatives (who believe that he has misused government funds, and his “private” company owes everything to government support). The transportation industry, almost to a man, believes Musk’s plan for an underground, people-mover vacuum tube is nuts.
I, too, have been in the ranks of the detractors, at least in part. I sought to have him correct a whopper about nuclear versus solar power. He had his sums wrong by a factor of hundreds.
Yet you have to love Musk for thinking on a scale that hasn’t been seen for over half a century. He is a throwback to the great builder-engineers of the past: men who built the bridges, canals, dams and railroads, and electrified the United States.
As a nation, we used to be devoted to the big, the bold and the futuristic. Now, we’ve developed sophisticated ways of defeating big projects.
After the 1960s we lost our passion for the big idea and the big machine, from nuclear power plants to big civil engineering. The late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-New York, lamented this lack of courage to go big on a project.
Westway — the highway for New York City’s West Side — was defeated partly to protect the striped bass in New York Harbor. Moynihan said, “There is a kind of stasis that is beginning to settle into our public life. We cannot reach decision.”
I don’t wish to live on Mars, I don’t want to be whisked in a tube from Washington to New York. I’m even undecided whether I want to ride in space — but try me.
I don’t know whether Musk will go broke, whether he’ll overreach or whether he’ll give the whole world a new frontier. But until (and if) a better dreamer comes along, I’m glad we have him reaching for the planets.
Photo: Elon Musk stands inside a rocket awaiting assembly. Credit: SpaceX