If ever you wanted a study in contrasts, watch Monday night’s Presidential debate between the idiotic Donald Trump and the robotic Hillary Clinton, then watch this:
Elon Musk is not a gifted public speaker—but when you’re a genius billionaire preparing the infrastructure to send a million people to Mars, that can be easily forgiven. SpaceX’s Mars colonization plans are incredibly ambitious. Coming from someone other than Mr. Musk, they would seem like a sci-fi pipe dream. A decade ago the idea of recovering a spent rocket stage and landing it vertically was the domain of 1950s sci-fi covers. But not only has SpaceX done it, they’ve done it repeatedly. Landing a giant rocket right back where it took off is an enormous technical challenge. But SpaceX will do it, because they are driven by Mr. Musk’s vision of making humans a multi-planet species. That drive to take humanity forward has taken a company founded in 2001 to a company that now has become one of the most important players in the industry.
If you want to know why I am proud to be an American, look at SpaceX.
That is also why despite the utter failure of our politics, this nation is strong. We’re the only nation that’s doing something like this. No European nation is planning to go to Mars. Russia’s space program is operating on technologies developed in the 1960s and incrementally upgraded since then. While Russia’s Soyuz capsule is highly reliable, the Russians do not have the technological or manufacturing capability to build anything like SpaceX’s Interplanetary Colonial Transport. Even China, a country with great manufacturing capability and prowess, can’t come close to what SpaceX is planning.
Donald Trump has spent his entire campaign talking down America, telling us that we’re “losing” to China, Japan, and Mexico. To put it bluntly, that’s utter bullshit.
Not only is SpaceX showing how American’s technological edge has not dulled, it is showing how the free-market system can deliver better results faster than government-run systems. NASA is currently tasked with building the SLS—the Space Launch System, or jokingly referred to as the Senate Launch System—a massive heavy-lift rocket that is supposed to also take NASA astronauts to Mars. Except the SLS will almost certainly never do that. For one, the SLS will cost billions per flight, at least $2 billion, and likely more. Second, it’s only scheduled to fly at most once per year. It’s far too easy for the workers necessary to make the SLS safe to lose valuable skills if there isn’t a steady launch cadence. This is one of the reasons why even NASA is admitting that the SLS may have a relatively high “baked-in” risk factor. While SpaceX is admitting that the first few launches of its rocket will also be risky, SpaceX isn’t putting all of their eggs in one basket. SpaceX has already shown a willingness to accept and learn from failure that NASA has long ago lacked.
The biggest reason that the SLS is a bad choice for NASA is that it is so huge and so expensive that there’s little room in the budget for doing anything with that huge rocket. There’s very little development of all the other infrastructure to actually get to Mars, land there, and do anything on the surface. While SpaceX has not developed their plans very far, they at least have a ship that will go to Mars on the drawing board. NASA does not have even that, and with all of its funding going elsewhere, the SLS may prove to be a rocket to nowhere.
By the time the SLS is developed enough to send a handful of astronauts on a slingshot around the Moon, SpaceX could be sending the first pioneers to Mars. The SLS has been in development for years. SpaceX is only devoting 5% of its workforce to the the ICT. Yet in terms of development, SpaceX isn’t that far behind the SLS and even with the usual schedule slippage, SpaceX may be sending humans to Mars years before NASA can. For all NASA’s talk of a “Journey to Mars,” it’s more likely to be SpaceX that accomplishes it.
What we’re seeing is a real-world example of why America works. Donald Trump has spent his entire campaign talking down America, telling us that we’re “losing” to China, Japan, and Mexico. To put it bluntly, that’s utter bullshit. China can’t build something like the ICT. China isn’t launching rockets and landing them in the middle of the ocean. China isn’t designing iPhones—it’s assembling them. The Japanese are in the middle of a slow-motion economic collapse caused by low birthrates and an ossified political and economic culture. Mexico is still a Third World country and borders on being a failed state. Trump’s claims about American manufacturing are just wrong. The US is not losing manufacturing capability—we make more products now than we ever have been. The reason places in the Rust Belt have been so hard-hit is because our industry is massively more efficient than ever. How long does a washing machine made today last compared to one built in the 1970s? How long do our cars last now than in the 1970s? How many workers does it take to make a product now than it does in the 1970s? We don’t need the number of workers that we did decades ago because technology has advanced.
Further, America’s educational system pushes Americans into a one-size-fits-all model of the liberal arts education. We’ve let vocational education wither. Apple CEO Tim Cook was blunt in his explanation why Apple does not make iPhones in the United States:
“Let me be clear,” Cook said. “China put an enormous focus on manufacturing, in what you and I would call vocational kind of skills. The US over time began to stop having as many vocational kind of skills. I mean you could take every tool and die maker in the United States and probably put them in the room that we’re currently sitting in. In China you would have to have multiple football fields.”
Should the US put more emphasis on vocational training? I certainly think so. But we cannot deceive ourselves into thinking that if we just somehow forced American companies to only hire here, our economy would boom. a US-made iPhone would be significantly more expensive. That would mean fewer iPhones sold, which means fewer jobs. And companies like Apple would still make more iPhones outside the US than inside, because we live in a global market. Apple isn’t going to raise the price of the iPhone by making it here, only to ship those iPhones back to China, India, or Europe to sell. Even if we could get more Americans to invest in vocational education&madsh;itself not a bad idea—that assumes that those jobs would be jobs Americans would want to do. If American workers were really clamoring to do that kind of work, we would see a market for it here in the US. But Americans stopped going into tool and die work because it’s not glamorous or particularly remunerative work.
Even if we did that, technology is changing. SpaceX will be building the Raptor engine with many 3D printed parts. 3D printing will change the way nearly everything is manufactured in the next few decades. Even if we made it a national priority to get a million new tool and die workers trained in America, by the time that was accomplished, there would very likely be fewer jobs that need those skills. Once again, it’s the US that leads in industrial 3D printing—an edge that makes plans like SpaceX’s ICT possible.
It’s far too easy to think like Donald Trump and say that America’s best days are behind us, and we need some blathering strongman to “make America great again.” That attitude is both wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because America is a great country that can achieve technological heights unimaginable anywhere else. It is dangerous because it leads to policies that will make America more isolated and less competitive over time.
Perhaps the smartest thing we could do is send Donald Trump to Mars. Let him build the Trump Resort and Casino on Olympus Mons. Plus, the hot air he expels could warm the Martian atmosphere enough to allow for liquid water. Meanwhile, visionary leaders like Elon Musk can demonstrate why America is already the greatest and most technologically advanced nation on Earth or anywhere else in the Solar System.