Elon Musk: Space Pirate or Space Prophet?

elon musk at spacex

Elon Musk’s long-term goal is to preserve humanity, but is it altruism or capitalism?

elon musk2photo: Michelle Andoniancc

To call him another rich eccentric is obscenely simplistic. Elon Musk, the 43 year-old founder of Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity has better things to do than engage in trite nightclub publicity stunts or overproduced profile-boosting acts of debauchery. While he’s passed on the trivial, he’s not exactly crushing stereotypes either – the South African-born entrepreneur has given $10 million of his own money to a think tank dedicated to ensuring advanced artificial intelligence doesn’t one day get the drop on humanity. Paranoid or not, there’s something that separates Musk from being just another high-profile personality with too much money. The real question is whether that something is an ingenious play of misdirection or a genuine urge to preserve mankind.

In January a lot of big things happened. Musk announced his plans for a massive low-orbiting satellite network via SpaceX capable of providing high-speed internet to virtually everyone on the planet. The announcement came almost a year after his ill-fated collaboration with fellow entrepreneur Greg Wyler’s similarly proposed OneWeb (formerly WorldVu) satellite network.

As one might expect, the dueling proposals have had a bumpy start. Company alliances have been forged and broken with enough regularity to make Game of Thrones look like a children’s morning show. To understand Musk’s current role in what some have dubbed “The Second Space Race,” we have to look back to when high-end communication first lifted off.


Back to the 90s

Some time in the early nineties a handful of companies decided it would be a great idea to establish various networks of communication satellites. The move had the potential to revolutionize internet and phone access by making it available to a tremendous amount of people while simultaneously being tremendously lucrative. The ventures proved to be too far ahead of their time, however, and after billions of dollars invested by Saudi royalty and wealthy nerds in glasses, the slow, sporadically functioning networks proved too costly for consumers to put up with. By the early 2000s, satellite companies like Globalstar, Iridium, and Teledisic had all filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.

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For the next few years, wealthy investors woke up in cold sweats after dreaming they had invested heavily into another satellite network proposal. But amongst the timid and hesitant were a few brave engineers with some money who figured it was time to try again. Enter Elon Musk.


SpaceX: The future of yesterday’s tomorrow, today

note: not their official slogan

With a few dollars to his name after founding a couple startups (one of which would grow into Paypal), Musk spent 100 million dollars of his fortune to fund the space transport service SpaceX in 2002. Initially far from profitable, the company was said to have been kept afloat by Musk’s newly founded and fairly successful electric vehicle company, Tesla Motors.

spacexphoto: Steve Jurvetson – cc

In 2006, SpaceX won a contract from NASA to develop a launch system capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Profitable today, SpaceX has completed 5 missions to the ISS as of January of this year.

While the risk in starting a rocket company is apparent in itself, even more eyebrows have been raised by what Musk has stated is his ultimate goal – the eventual colonization of Mars. Massive volcanoes, resource depletion, and even humanity-ending engineered viruses have all been given as valid reasons by Musk to make Mars a second home.

With successful testing in reusable rocket technology, Musk has stated that his aims are to lower the cost of space travel to a point where transporting supplies as well as passengers is no longer restricted to science fiction. Even with SpaceX’s cost-reducing technology, however, a tremendous amount of capital will be required to get his plans off the ground.


Love is fleeting

Last year, long-time friend and former Google employee Greg Wyler launched OneWeb, a now competing satellite startup, with proposed plans to launch a network of nearly 700 low-orbiting satellites by 2019. Interested in Wyler’s satellite expertise, Google had initially hired Wyler onto its satellite division to help create the framework for its own planned network. It was shortly afterwards that Wyler left Google under mysterious circumstances to create OneWeb.

Taking his expertise, as well as a few of his colleagues with him, Wyler began working for himself, leaving the multibillion dollar web service standing at the alter. No longer affiliated with Google, Wyler began working in conjunction with Musk in what appeared to be a corporate dream team. The pairing had world experts on both satellite creation as well as a cheap means of delivering them into orbit. When Musk requested a portion of OneWeb to continue operations, Wyler refused. Instead, the two friends cut collaboration and Wyler began seeking investors on his own.

elon muskMaurizio Pesce – creative commons

With the partnership dismantled, Musk was undaunted. Last January, while OneWeb gathered the backing of telecommunication giant Qualcomm as well as venture capitalist Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, SpaceX announced a $1 billion dollar combined investment from Google and Fidelity followed shortly by plans to open a satellite production facility in Seattle. While Musk, Wyler, and Branson have claimed to all be friends, there’s plenty of time for things to get nasty – if they aren’t already.


A Tale of Two Networks

The details regarding both Wyler and Musk’s competing plans suggest attributes and detriments on both platforms. When the best of both worlds collapsed at the end of their partnership, neither were left with a perfect system. Things are likely to change drastically over the course of the next few years, however.

Despite its current status as a smaller startup, one of OneWeb’s greatest assets is the rights to the signal spectrum Wyler took with him after leaving Google. Ideal for the satellite frequencies needed for low-orbit communication, Wyler already has a large portion of bureaucracy and red tape out of the way. The rights to spectrum, granted by the International Telecommunications Union, are a big enough issue for SpaceX that Musk has even tampered with the idea of using laser signals to communicate data. It’s been pointed out, however, that a laser system would have a difficult time penetrating clouds in Earth’s atmosphere.

Aside from it’s size relative to OneWeb, SpaceX has the tremendous advantage of in-house rocket production. Add to that its soon-to-be in-house satellite facility and you have an operation that would have made Rockefellar jealous.


Capitalism or Altruism?

The question of financial gain as a drive for either company is no question at all. While the philanthropic aspect of delivering internet to the globe is quite admirable, the revenue potential for any company able to successfully implement a communications network on a global scale is astronomical.

moon and marsphoto: Linda Tannercc

Musk has joked that his whole venture is simply an effort to give people an alternative to Time Warner Cable and Comcast – two cable companies notorious for poor customer service as well as holding monopolies in various US cities.  All joking aside, however, this leaves the very real question of whether these satellite networks might become monopolies themselves on a much larger scale. If a faster, cheaper, farther-reaching internet service is made available, could it spell the end of land-wired companies altogether? One or even two companies controlling the world’s communication is an incredible amount of control for any private organization.

While Elon Musk hasn’t made any attempts to mask his satellite endeavor as anything other than a primary means of generating revenue for planet exploration, it’s easy to wonder how serious he is about his Mars expectations. His fascination with space surely appears to be genuine, and his admitted love for Isaac Asimov novels would certainly place him in the circle of visionaries more inspired by books like I, Robot than The Wall Street Journal.

While Musk’s role as humanity’s guardian angel may very well be genuine, business transparency will be crucial as companies like SpaceX and OneWeb move forward in their integration of the cosmos. If we’re wrong, that’s an awful lot of power for one man.


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