Capitalism goes galactic
Is Elon Musk's car-rocket stunt just a puny reinforcement of our basest nature?
On Tuesday, February 6, in a feat of science and luck, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy – the most powerful rocket on Earth – out of this world. Crowds congregated around the launch site at Cape Canaveral to see whether or not the heavy-lift projectile would make it out of the atmosphere; and, given that Musk himself was dubious about the odds of a favourable outcome, spectators were probably as motivated by the delicious prospect of Schadenfreude as they were by more noble sentiments.Fifty years ago, rocket-building was a very specific facet of (competitive) nationalism – the race to space was a matter of tremendous import: tremendous gravity, if you will. So the Falcon Heavy’s very public debut this week evinces an interesting shift, from a tradition of governmental exclusivity, to a culture of (apparently fruitful) private enterprise in this domain; a shift sanctioned by Nasa in the name of greater thrift.And nowhere were the ramifications of such a shift more apparent than in the nature of the Falcon Heavy’s cargo, and in its intended mission – to deposit one of Musk’s precious Tesla Roadsters, replete with dummy driver and functional sound system, into space. Now, much to the childlike delight of adult men everywhere, there is a shiny red racing car orbiting Earth – and all because Elon Musk willed it.Billionaires are expected to behave strangely – they can literally afford to flout propriety. In the 1980s, Robert Klark Graham set about collecting the sperm of decrepit Nobel laureates; he wanted to bio-engineer a super race in his spare time. The founder of Ikea reportedly recycles his tea-bags to avoid surfeit expenditure. He’s worth $23 billion. So perhaps, on the basis of his billionaire status – and given his enormous personal investments in the project – it’s understandable that Musk should feel entitled to realise a peculiar fantasy in the process.
In contrast to the stately, solemn launches of yesteryear, the Falcon Heavy ascended to the cacophonous strains of David Bowie’s Space Oddity blaring in the background; the self-same track plays on repeat in the celestial Tesla, on the dashboard of which the inscription “Made on Earth by humans” ensures that our reputation for idiocy transcends its earthly bounds.On the one hand, I’m inclined to regard Musk’s stunt as the most spectacular and brilliant advertisement to date. On the other, I cannot shake the feeling that there is something rather repugnant about the presence of this shiny red car in space. Not because it’s ridiculous – it is, but that in itself doesn’t make it problematic. I just find it troubling that we’ve elected – or allowed Elon Musk to elect – to represent humanity in terms of a popular symbol of capitalism. It’s almost comical – the colonising force of capitalism has actually gone galactic.