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Narcissists in Space

Elon Musk and his space-baron brethren want our admiration. Their narcissistic exploits deserve nothing but our scorn.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveils the company's manned spacecraft, The Dragon V2, on May 29, 2014, in Hawthorne, CA. Kevork Djansezian / Getty

On day three of the mission to rescue the Wild Boars, the youth soccer team that was trapped inside a system of flooded caves in Thailand, Elon Musk arrived on the scene, flanked by a team of engineers from Tesla, SpaceX, and Boring Company, his tunnel-construction venture. Urged on by his Twitter fans — not by the Thai authorities actually organizing the rescue mission — Musk’s team had been working, feverishly, on a couple of high-tech rescue options. One was an inflatable, pressure-controlled pouch that a boy could slip inside of and, theoretically, be carried out with by the trained divers. At the suggestion of a Twitter user, the team added a pocket in the wall to accommodate a phone or music player because, as Musk tweeted, “Music makes things better.” The other was a miniature submarine, Musk noted, “made of rocket parts.”

Musk’s team created the would-be rescue pods quickly — “we started with a concept at 8 AM and had a prototype in the pool being tested the same day,” Andrew Branagh, the CEO of Wing Inflatables, a supplier for SpaceX, told Wired. But any engineering resourcefulness was soon overshadowed. Musk flew the inventions to Thailand and tweeted up a storm from the cave system, but ultimately the divers freed the trapped boys without using Musk’s devices. When, in the aftermath of the rescue, one of the divers said that Musk’s inventions were impractical and dismissed Musk’s whole undertaking as “a PR stunt,” the billionaire fired back, randomly and petulantly, calling the man a “pedo guy.”

The shape of Musk’s Thailand narrative will be especially unsurprising to readers of Christian Davenport’s new book The Space Barons, which tracks the efforts over the last two decades of Musk and his fellow space-company-owning billionaires, Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), Paul Allen (Stratolaunch), and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic).

Davenport, a business reporter for the Washington Post, frames the book largely as a case study in the contrasting corporate strategies that Musk and Bezos embody. Bezos — the tortoise, in Davenport’s taxonomy — works slowly and discreetly, cloaking his work in nondisclosure agreements. His motto is “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Musk, the hare, is fast and showy, his work almost indistinguishable from the hype surrounding it. His motto: “head down, plough through the line.”

What they share is an origin story about private space exploration — both say their interest stems from a desire to save humanity from planetary collapse. Bezos has been intrigued by the idea of colonizing space since his youth; as a high-school valedictorian he gave a speech about the need for humans to live in space. “Earth had limited resources and so his idea was to get humanity off its surface, into space so as to protect the planet.” Musk’s story is similar. From a young age, he thought seriously about what he called “an eventual extinction event.” “The solution: Find another planet to live on,” writes Davenport. Musk’s idea was to “make humans a multiplanet species, and create a backup hard drive for the human race there, just in case Earth crashes like a faulty computer.”

It is impossible for any reader living through the ravages of global warming to scan these sentiments without skepticism. If someone is going to invest enormous amounts of wealth and time in an engineering project, gathering together some of the smartest scientists on the planet to develop and test creative solutions to an intractable problem, in the interest of saving the future of humanity, how could you choose any focus but climate change? Davenport doesn’t ask, taking at face value the space barons’ declarations that they are motivated by planetary rescue.

For those interested in the movement to privatize space exploration and space itself, The Space Barons does serve as a useful primer, laying out the timelines and geneses of these companies. But it stops short of posing critical questions about what it means for such enterprises to be privately held — a line of questioning that, given the history of labor problems and tendencies toward monopolization at the barons’ non-space companies Amazon and Tesla, might be very good questions to ask indeed.

It instead leans heavily on colorful anecdotes about the companies’ founders and their philosophies. Bezos, obsessed with the accomplishments of NASA ever since he watched the moon landing at the age of five, commissions an underwater search party to recover the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket engines from the floor of the Atlantic. Branson evangelizes about the “life-changing” effects of experiencing space and trains for spaceflight in a spinning centrifuge, declaring the adventure “rather fun.” A young Musk floats an idea for a Martian greenhouse project straight out of the sci-fi of Kim Stanley Robinson, “a P.T. Barnum-like stunt” in which he would launch a greenhouse full of seeds and growing medium onto the surface of Mars and make the red planet bloom. A more seasoned Musk sues the US Air Force for the right to compete for national-security launches alongside established aerospace contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Running through all of these engineering and business adventures is the rivalry between Bezos and Musk. Both are working toward the same goal: developing and producing rockets that can be reused on multiple flights, making regular spaceflight more efficient. When SpaceX successfully launched — and then re-landed — the Falcon 9 for the first time, in December of 2015, Musk was ecstatic. Until he saw a tweet from Bezos offering his congratulations and saying “Welcome to the club!” Bezos had done the same, with his rocket, the New Shepard, the month before. Musk took the success of the Falcon 9 as validation of his long-term goals. “It really quite dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Well, it’s part of what this is all about. The desire to be beloved, to be seen as a great visionary rescuer, is what’s so grating about Musk’s recent public announcements of altruism, and it’s present throughout the history of all of the companies profiled in The Space Barons. In addition to amassing billions of dollars in personal wealth and living out their rocket-launching boyhood dreams, the space barons insist on framing their pursuits as inspirational and civic-minded.

The tension in the recent dust-up over Musk’s unused Thai-cave rescue pods isn’t about whether Musk and his engineers created the rescue pods, but why. Was it a good-faith effort to help a group of desperate kids, or a megalomaniacal attempt to place himself and his companies at the center of a giant news story? Musk wants the answer to be simple, defending his behavior by insisting that “something’s messed up if this is not a good thing.”

The space barons are fond of metaphors of exploration and frontiers. They compare themselves to Shackleton and Magellan. “The thing that actually gets me the most excited about it,” Musk says, “is that I just think it’s the grandest adventure I could possibly imagine. It’s the most exciting thing — I couldn’t think of anything more exciting, more fun, more inspiring than to have a base on Mars.”

This enthusiasm is fine, of course. But it also shatters the notion that Musk and company are trying to thrust humanity into space to save us all from planetary disaster. Outer space, a flooded network of caves — anywhere dangerous and sparsely visited will draw to it both adventurers and rescuers. But their work proceeds differently, and someone who’s out for a grand adventure shouldn’t pretend to be a planetary EMT.

Perhaps the worst thing about the space barons is that they’re burnishing their reputation by rushing into areas vacated by state divestment — divestment that in many cases, they themselves have helped promote. Witness Musk’s recent pledge to “fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination” while lavishly contributing to the Republican Party. Musk and his brethren have hoovered up billions of dollars, funded plutocratic causes — and then balk when anyone raises a peep about their narcissistic antics.

“They were driven by the business opportunities in space, by adventure, and by ego,” Davenport writes of the group he profiles. “[I]magine the Promethean legacies they’d leave after opening up the Final Frontier.” Yet Promethean legacy is a double-edge sword: the trickster who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind is as much a symbol of tragic consequences as of human progress.