Geek, History, Science, Tech

Elon Musk: The Science Superhero We Need

For decades, people have been captivated by the immense potential space exploration has to improve the lives of millions. These speculations have been largely confined to the pages of science fiction thus far, but now there are a few filthy rich individuals who have decided to use their resources to turn them into reality. Perhaps most notable of these wealthy entrepreneurs is Elon Musk, the 43-year-old CEO of SpaceX.

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Following in the wake of expensive government programs, such as the NASA manned moon landings and space shuttle launches, Musk aims to transform space flight from an expensive, rare event into a more cost-effective and common endeavor. In fact, his company signed a multi-billion dollar deal with NASA to transport astronauts and payloads to the International Space Station. This was made possible because Musk, through SpaceX, can perform the necessary launches much more cheaply than existing government or military agencies.

SpaceX plans to reduce costs even further by developing reusable rockets that can launch into space, return to earth and be launched again later multiple times. This means that the cost of a launch would be reduced from the current $60 million to a few hundred thousand dollars, enough to cover the costs of fuel and oxygen.

Although these accomplishments are sufficient that SpaceX could, by any reasonable standards, be already considered a success, they are only the beginning for the imaginative and restless Musk. He envisions the eventual establishment of a human colony on Mars, for which his past and current space projects have been merely a prelude. In his mind’s eye, Elon can even see Martian cities with thousands of people inhabiting them. He was quoted in Management Today, saying, “We’ll be going to Mars within 10 or 11 years…I’d go certainly myself at some point, although I’m not sure how wise it would be for the CEO to be the test pilot.”

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Closer to home and perhaps more feasible in the short term, Musk intends to bring Internet access to the billions who lack it through a system of low-orbit satellites. Current satellite Internet solutions utilize geostationary orbits, about 26,000 miles above the earth’s surface, latency issues this huge distance between satellite and user has been a hurdle for traditional satellite companies like Hughesnet. By contrast, Musk’s planned network would employ thousands of satellites much closer to the ground to deliver results very similar to today’s high-performance cable Internet systems. This plan has attracted significant interest by no less a tech giant than Google, which recently decided to invest $1 billion in SpaceX.

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SpaceX isn’t Elon Musk’s only high-tech venture; he also runs Telsa Motors, which made more than a few waves with its electric vehicles. Despite disappointing sales numbers for the fourth quarter of 2014, Tesla announced the creation of an innovative product: a battery that can power homes. Although details on the new product are a bit light at present, Musk has stated that it might enter production in as little as six months. If this battery is a success, it could reduce homeowners’ dependence on more environmentally harmful means of electrical generation while simultaneously lowering their utility bills.

As Elon Musk moves forward with his futuristic schemes, he’s not the only name in the game. Richard Branson, the man behind space tourism enterprise Virgin Galactic, is also active in the space exploration and satellite Internet sectors. It may come to pass that a great rivalry will emerge between the two titans, reminiscent of the battle a century ago between Thomas Edison and the namesake of Tesla Motors, Nikola Tesla. One only hopes that the current crop of visionaries conducts itself in a more gentlemanly fashion than did those two notorious adversaries. The benefits to humankind, both here on Earth and throughout the solar system, could truly be immense.

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