Opinion

Elon Musk And The American Taxpayer

REUTERS/Rashid Umar Abbasi/File Photo

Kevin Mooney Contributor

If you’re ambitious to be among the first humans who travel to Mars, and you’re not afraid to die trying, you may be able to hop a flight with the blessing and financial support of Elon Musk.

Just know he’s not going to be on that initial flight himself. Musk has said that he wants to live and eventually die on Mars, “just not on impact.” Even the most ardent proponents of a manned mission to the red planet, acknowledge that there could be casualties along the way and the likelihood of casualties would be maximized during the initial early steps of a Mars program. So you go first!

The South African-born billionaire businessman unveiled his vision for the human colonization of Mars in a speech before the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico this past September. “The Interplanetary Transport System,” as he describes it, would involve large, reusable spacecraft that could transport at least 100 people at a time. In 2002, Musk founded SpaceX, an aerospace company headquartered in California, with the overarching purpose of creating reusable rockets that could continuously transport people to and from Mars. Musk has set a target state of 2024 for the first interplanetary flight, which he concedes is optimistic.

On Saturday, SpaceX executed a flawless liftoff of its Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base that deployed 10 commercial satellites. The company now appears set to regain business after experiencing a significant setback when a Falcon 9 exploded during a pre-launch test on the company’s Florida launch pad in Cape Canaveral.

When a Falcon 9 crashes and burns, those explosions typically consume tens of millions of dollars in government cargo. Since government money is taxpayer money, there’s room to argue that Musk is costing taxpayers whenever his rockets go ka-boom. But where  space exploration is concerned, it has always been the case that success is built on the back of failure. That’s just as true now as it was during the Apollo Program that landed American astronauts on the moon. Musk has had high profile failures, but has also made important the contributions to the engineering and construction of reusable rockets. Filmmaker Ron Howard’s recently concluded six-part National Geographic TV series “Mars” ends with thunderous applause in a control room celebrating one of Musk’s most notable achievements; the landing of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral.

If rockets can become as reusable as airplanes, this innovation could dramatically lower the cost of space flights. The operative word here is “if” and it’s possible that another contractor may come along to deliver a more efficient product to the government. Even so, give Musk credit for outlining an audacious vision for space exploration that far outpaces anything that has flowed out of the NASA bureaucracy in recent years.

The problem is not so much with government contracts where there is at least some competition and accountability; the problem is with government (yes taxpayer) subsidies that prop up failing enterprises.

This is where Musk has gone off the rails and this is where conservative critics opposed to renewable energy schemes have very rightly called out and exposed Musk for corporate cronyism.

Citizens for the Republic, a nonprofit grassroots group of conservative activists based in Alexandria, Va., operate the “Stop Elon Musk from Failing Again” web site as an extension of the group’s “Sunlight Project” set up in 2015 “to monitor and expose corruption and cronyism at the nexus of government and business.” All told Musk has benefited from almost $5 billion in government support for this three companies, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times. As a private company, SpaceX does not publicly disclose its finances. But the story is much different with Tesla Motors and SolarCity, which have consistently reported net losses as publicly traded companies. In November, shareholders with both companies approved a $2 billion merger.

The great irony here is that Musk’s own unfortunate contributions to the cause of global warming alarmism and the global warming industry that attaches itself to debunked scientific claims may turn out to be the biggest impediments to a revitalized space program. The Science and Environmental Policy Project, a research and advocacy group based in Arlington, Va., calculates, based on government figures, that from Fiscal Year (FY) 1993 to FY 2013 total U.S. expenditures on climate change came to more than $165 billion with more than $35 billion is identified as climate science.  In current dollars, the Apollo program cost about $130 billon, according to SEPP. Yes, this means the U.S. has spent more on global warming alarmism than it did to send men to the moon. Since there hasn’t been any global warming for almost 20 years now, the amount of government funds spent on probing into predicted levels of global warming that has not materialized raises some disconcerting questions about the opportunity costs.

There’s good Elon and there’s bad Elon

The good one ought to join forces with climate skeptics.