I’ve critiqued a number of Musk’s projects before, but I think we need to be a bit more direct. Quite simply is Musk entirely the full shilling? Is he the real life Tony Stark the fan boys seem to think, or a modern day Howard Hughes? Because if its the latter his bizarre behaviour will only get worse and worse until things come to a head. Which could have rather serious consequences.
Now I know the response from Musk fan boys. Oh they said he’d never get electric cars to work, or never be able to safely land and re-use a rocket, but look what happened. Well two things A) no they didn’t. And B) he actually didn’t do any of these things.
Tesla was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning in 2003, with Musk not taking an active role in the company until 2005. The first car designed (which Musk had little to no actual input into) was heavily based off of the Tzero roadster from the late 1990’s. And Musk couldn’t have invented the electric car, because they have existed since the 19th century.
Furthermore, I’d argue if you were to pick an iconic car in the history of electric vehicles, I won’t pick any Tesla’s. Instead I’d pick the AMC Amitron from the late 1960’s, which included all the major elements of the modern electric vehicle, battery, motor controller, motors, etc., as well as the first use of a lithium Ion battery. Or perhaps the first generation Toyota Prius. While a hybrid car, it was the first attempt to mass produce a vehicle with an electric powertrain and thus many production bottle necks were solved, opening the way up for fully electric vehicles to follow.
As for vertical landing rockets, how do you think the Apollo crews landed on the moon? And the DC-X programme of the 1990’s successfully demonstrated reusablity of 1st stages. Hyperloop too, wasn’t Musk’s idea, it come from a concept proposed by Robert Goodard back in the 1900’s. Which itself is based off of Brunel’s 19th century concept of an atmospheric railway.
So perhaps the problem here is how his fans seem to invent things that he’s supposedly done, while ignoring the many promises he’s made but not kept. For example, the original proposed Falcon rocket was supposed to be fully reusable (i.e. both upper and lower stages) and yet still cost a fraction of what Falcon 9 flights now cost. He promised Tesla’s would be capable of self driving, which they are not (and led to at least one fatal accident). He promised hospitals thousands of ventilators, which never showed up.
Perhaps the most recent example of Musk’s failure to deliver, as well as the willingness of his fans and the media to gloss over this reality, a good example being the recently launched Las Vegas loop. This isn’t so much a public transport system, but an anti-public transport system.
Musk promised it would carry 4400 a hour, using autonomous pods going at 155 mph. Instead, he delivered a pair of single lane tunnels with conventional Tesla’s in them (requiring some 60 drivers at peak times) capable of only going 35 mph and only delivering about 1000/hour. And at a cost of $55 million, this is an insanely expensive cost, for what is essentially a glorified Disney ride to get people from the convention centre to their cars (can’t they just walk?).
You know what else you could buy for $55 million? An entire fleet of buses! Even for a fraction of this cost you could have put in a guided bus lane. The whole point of public transport is to encourage people to leave their cars at home. Because, counter intuitively, more roads and better infrastructure for cars, means more cars and more jams, plus more expensive infrastructure for the local government to pay for (which means higher taxes). By contrast if you can ferry people directly from this convention centre to their hotel (via a bus), or the airport (or other prominent landmarks) they won’t need a car at all.
So instead Musk has created a system that burns public money, leaving less to spend on genuine public transport projects (and as a car maker, he has a strong financial incentive to encourage more driving and car ownership) and saddle government’s with expensive infrastructure to maintain in perpetuity. Its less public transport and more a bourgeoisie loop, so the well heeled jet set types don’t have to rub shoulders with the tourists and plebs.
And this is something of a theme for Musk. After all his proposed use of Starship, as a point to point transport mechanism amounts to saying that the rich should be allowed to burn vast amounts of fuel, just so they can save a few hours in transit. Well, if Starship was a vaguely sane suggestion that is. In truth, it would take almost as long to get its passengers point to point as a conventional airliner (once you factor in the time taken to get passengers out to the launch pad, suit them up, put on their astronaut diapers (yes, how do you think astronauts meet the calls of nature in a space suit), strap everyone in, fuel the rocket, etc.). And that’s assuming you’d be given permission to fly, given the many likely health and safety, environmental and noise related concerns.
In fact let’s talk about starship. It is a terrible design. I’m not going to waste time going over the many issues, in part because I’ve done so already, but also there are others who have done a far better job. But in summary, even if it worked, its a one trick pony….and that trick is the potential for down cargo (which its far from proving it can do) not going to Mars.
Even so, Musk has managed to blow up a dozen or so test prototypes with not a lot to show for it. He’s now in a dispute with the FAA and environmental groups over the mess he’s making, adding to the thousand or so active legal cases he’s currently fighting, largely because of his inability to keep his big mouth shut and not say dumb things online.
Which raises the question, what is the point of starship? Well my guess is, its to keep Musk distracted, so that the real engineers can get on with the job of running Tesla and SpaceX. Along with the Boring company, its a sort of executive play pen where they can leave their boss baby to putter in his sandbox and not bother them….or go on a rage firing spree.
But NASA just awarded SpaceX the contract to build the Lunar lander? Ya and if one was cynical it would be that the Biden administration, whose never really committed to space flight, knows they don’t have the funds or the political capital to blow hundreds of billions repeating Apollo. But they equally don’t want to be identified as the assassins who killed off manned lunar/Mars missions. They need a fall guy…which is where Musk comes in!
SpaceX happens to have facilities in key states that will matter in 2024 (most notably Texas, which might be a swing state by then). So, given that Congress sees NASA as a jobs programme, they sling a few billion his way. If he succeeds, well then great. If he crashes and burns, well aw shucks we tried our best, I mean we even got Elon Musk to design the hardware, how can we be to blame.
And this is what worries me about Musk and his fans. Sooner or later his luck is going to run out. Environments such as space, or public transport do not suffer fools. Likely we’ll end up with some tragic accident, or a massive overspend on a government project and he gets to spend the rest of his life going form congressional committee to committee and court house to court house.
And his fans need to understand they are not doing him, or whatever cause they believe, in any favours. If and when he crashes and burns, its not going to encourage more investment in space, instead the opposite is more likely (it will be an excuse for opponents of manned spaceflight to pull the plug). A major failure of his public transport or electric car initiatives will be used as an excuse to cancel both in favour of the fossil fuel lobby.
Someone needs to tell him to either set smaller more deliverable goals. Or maybe just take a back seat and let someone else take over.