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Selling the American Space Dream

The cosmic delusions of Elon Musk and Wernher von Braun

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, it invited Americans to choose their path to salvation. Would it be scientific reason, predicated on patience with process and trial and error? If so, eminent minds like Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci were there on our screens to explain how viruses spread exponentially and why we’d need to alter our behavior for a while in order to save millions of lives. Study up and act for the common good, they kept telling us.

And what about Elon Musk? We might have expected the brilliant technologist to have lent his credibility to the effort, too. But no, as the crisis unfurled, Musk threw Twitter tantrums, made vastly wrong predictions, defied government orders, and trumpeted again and again what really mattered—his company placing humans on Mars.

Whatever vexes us here on Earth, Musk promises, can be escaped. This only requires the application of enough money, technology, and human will. And no single person commands more of those resources than Elon Musk, accumulating even more in each category as the pandemic sapped the nation’s economy, his wealth tripling this year.

In the best Calvinist tradition, Musk has proved himself anointed. His utterances, therefore, however bizarre they might seem, must be taken on faith. That was the cosmic way to salvation Elon Musk offered a nation in crisis, and it’s hardly the first time it’s been sold to gullible Americans.

Musk began on March 6 by tweeting that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” A week later, he assured SpaceX employees that Covid-19 wasn’t “within the top 100 health risks in the United States.” They were far more likely to die in a car crash, he said, failing to note that car crashes aren’t infectious, nor do they double in frequency every two to three days—as Covid-19 in the United States was then doing. Two days prior to this misleading outburst, the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic.

Already the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was predicting between 200,000 and 1.7 million Americans would die, depending on how seriously people embraced self-isolation and other measures. The number of new coronavirus infections, Musk proclaimed, would be close to zero by the end of April.

The same week that Musk told his employees to chill and keep building rockets to space, California Governor Gavin Newsom instructed everyone to stay at home unless they were providing an essential service. Musk kept SpaceX open, even as some workers complained their lives were put in jeopardy.

For a moment, Musk tried to play the role of tycoon hero by announcing he’d bought more than 1,000 ventilators from China for undersupplied U.S. hospitals—except they turned out not to be actual ventilators. Never mind; Musk’s main mission was to undercut public health measures he deemed “fascist.”

Children, Musk falsely stated, are “essentially immune,” so the day care at SpaceX should stay open. Except for the old and infirm, he told his employees, everyone “otherwise healthy and young to middle-aged” had little to worry about, so remain at your stations. “FREE AMERICA NOW,” he tweeted. In September, he doubled down by saying he wouldn’t take a vaccine if it became available.

Why would someone so smart propagate such stupidity about how this virus spreads and harms? Perhaps because Musk faces a challenge that had preoccupied previous managers of grand space enterprises: maintaining a skilled, loyal workforce in the service of some really far-fetched notions. In this wildly expensive and deadline-driven business, it always has been crucial to sustain the dream in order to maintain the bottom line.

One early space pioneer who knew this very well was Wernher von Braun, the registered Nazi and S.S. officer who designed Hitler’s death-dealing V-2 rockets and went on to help lead America’s space program. In wartime Germany, von Braun made use of slaves placed at his disposal, 20,000 of whom died building his rocket.

For America’s postwar space effort, he proposed a different labor-supply solution: The campaign to explore Mars, he wrote in 1962, would entail lockstep organization. Von Braun needed an elaborate network of human machinery made of dutiful cogs. “Great numbers of professionals from many walks of life, trained to co-operate unfailingly, must be recruited,” he explained. “Such training will require years before each can fit his special ability into the pattern of the whole.”

Von Braun’s schema reflected the times: a booming America flowing its middle class into government and corporate bureaucracies. Musk’s rebel capitalist persona fits this different era of entrepreneur worship. (It’s doubtful von Braun would have jokingly tweeted he enjoyed the video game “Call of Booty,” as Musk did.)

But the two men share certain key traits. They are obsessive and grandiose. They combine tremendous technical facility with a cartoonish grasp of the human condition. They have even less of any workable idea of how we’d all get along on other planets. They founded and inspired ambitious macho geek cultures. And their overweening instinct for self-promotion inevitably has interlocked them with the two great mechanisms for lifting the American dream into the heavens—popular media and the military.

In this second Gilded Age, Musk is but one of several men so enriched by techno-capitalism that they can seed-finance their own space programs. Like Trump touting his United States Space Force, they have melded the stuff of science fiction into a reality television show. We watch agape as they claim to race one another to put humans on Mars and then colonize the universe.

In their respective marketing initiatives, Musk and von Braun share one more key instinct. The two immigrants to the United States show a deft command of the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny—the creed insisting that white settlers were divinely ordained to occupy all of North America, in the process displacing and killing off indigenous peoples. Musk invokes the core precepts of Manifest Destiny when he says, “The United States is a nation of explorers” for whom going to Mars is “not a question of how. It’s a question of will.”

(He has an evangelist’s knack, as well, for prophesying doom. We have to get out of here, he has argued, given the “probability” that civilization will be wiped out, likely by A.I. robots. Besides, sooner or six billion years later, the sun will “engulf” us.)

It was also the dream of Manifest Destiny that von Braun revived when he published the 1952 magazine article “Crossing the Last Frontier.” And when, on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, he pronounced that by “conquering” space we would be “extending this God-given brain and these God-given hands to their outermost limits.” And when, as one fawning biographer tells it, he preached the gospel of space conquest to American aerospace advocates around a campfire. Having served the devil named Hitler, von Braun saw fit to lecture his new friends on what God wants of men and the “ethical laws” that are “enforced from upstairs.”

(One man’s Manifest Destiny, it seems, is another’s Lebensraum. Von Braun, who renounced his Nazi past, did nevertheless tirelessly aid Hitler’s invasions to steal the “room for living” that God supposedly granted German people. Musk, the son of a white engineer, left South Africa at age 17 before he could be enlisted in the military that enforced white rule, but he lived a privileged childhood courtesy of colonial apartheid.)

In 2017, Vice President Mike Pence drew on the same self-hymning script when he greeted the inaugural meeting of the newly revived National Space Council by quoting his boss, Donald Trump: “It is America’s destiny to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown.” And so, said Pence, an evangelical Catholic, “as we embark, let us have faith. Faith that, as the Old Book teaches us that if we rise to the heavens, he will be there.”

God made Americans special and He wants us to live on Mars, so we have to go. Say that out loud in a Costco aisle, or in line to get on a bus, and see what kinds of strange looks you get. And yet, there’s your Manifest Destiny, buried deep within the American subcortex, still processing signals in the year of our Lord 2020.

A surefire technique for capturing an audience, it’s been said, is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Planets are pretty strange, even terrifying. The sky of Mercury is pitch black for lack of molecules. Weather there ranges from 290 degrees below zero to 800 degrees above.

To be on the surface of Venus, which is hotter even than Mercury’s, is to be crushed by the carbon dioxide-laden atmosphere as if standing 3,000 feet under the sea.

When people say Mars is “the most Earth-like planet,” the degree of difference does bear noting. The average temperature on Mars roughly equals the coldest ever recorded in Yakutsk, Siberia.

Should your artificial cocoon fail, your blood will boil. Or the radiation will sicken you, since a Red Planet visit would expose you to hundreds of times the level allowed for radiation workers on Earth—a Mars mission “showstopper” for the European Space Agency.

Musk, who vows to send a first wave of 100,000 people to Mars in about 10 years in 1,000 spaceships, admits it’s likely they’ll meet untimely ends. There’s a “good chance you’ll die, it’s going to be tough going.”

But eventually, he explains, all Mars really needs is a good “terraforming”—altering the atmosphere to make it more Earth-like by bombarding its poles with nuclear explosions. Last year, he began selling a T-shirt saying NUKE MARS. When a Russian scientist estimated it would take 10,000 nuclear warheads to carry out the plan, Musk tweeted, “No problem.”

Serious experts, by the way, say Mars lacks the needed elements to make the concept even minutely plausible.

If not Mars, then, where does our destiny lie? While it’s always a fun conversation starter to posit that, among billions of galaxies, surely there has to be one spot nice for humans, so far we’ve identified no second Earth. We have found exoplanets like, say, HD 189733 b, where winds of 5,400 miles per hour drive molten glass through the air, or WASP-76 b, where the thermometer hits 4,350 Fahrenheit and it rains liquid iron.

How to turn this existential nightmare of a universe, our infinite abyss, from the strange to the familiar?

This tall order has been the unrelenting mission of American postwar popular media. Consider the handiwork of a Hollywood special-effects expert and illustrator named Chesley Bonestell. In 1949, he created a battery of travel brochure images to fill a book called The Conquest of Space, written by Willy Ley, a German peer of von Braun. On orange Venus, we witness the bracing spectacle of “windblown dust etching the rocks into fantastic shapes.” On Mercury, mustardy mud plains are cracked by a sun so hot that “explorers could not leave the protection of their ship for long.” On Mars, a snowdrift dominates the foreground view, as one would see while “looking toward the setting sun.”

In many of Bonestell’s paintings, an upright, landed rocket, shaped remarkably like the Elon Musk “Starship” prototype, is parked in the background like a station wagon in someone’s vacation snapshot.

Bonestell also illustrated Project Mars, a 1948 potboiler novel by von Braun that imagined the first trip to the red planet and what comes next. In von Braun’s story, that would be a contingent of astronauts greeted by an elected government of Martians led by a charismatic figure sporting the title—wait for it—Elon.

Bonestell went on to collaborate with von Braun on “Man Will Conquer Space Soon,” a series of articles that from 1952 to 1954 splashed across the pages of Collier’s magazine. The series features Bonestell’s paintings of spaceships departing from a wheeled space station—a vision of future space habitation much like the one featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Walt Disney, sensing fodder for the nation’s living rooms, next recruited von Braun for three episodes of the television show Disneyland, starting in 1955. They were titled “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon,” and “Mars and Beyond.” About 42 million Americans watched the first, as von Braun, then the head of the Guided Missile Division of the U.S. Rocket Research Center in Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, explained in his crisp German accent how visiting other planets was not going to be so strange after all.

By then, von Braun was well-schooled in the skyward thrust that could be generated by the celluloid dream factory. As a teenage member of rocketry club outside Berlin, he had been mentored by the mathematician Hermann Oberth, who published books about space travel. The film director Fritz Lang hired Oberth to create an actual rocket to be launched as a publicity stunt to coincide with the premiere of his silent movie Woman in the Moon. By the time the film came out in 1929, Oberth had made little headway. But his teenage protégé Wernher came to him and asked to work for free on the rocket motor left over from Woman in the Moon.

Years later, Oberth and von Braun celebrated the successful launch of the V-2 weapon, destined to kill and maim thousands, that they’d helped build for Hitler. Painted on the base of rocket is a naked Woman in the Moon.

When a military mind—or a mind bent on pleasing the military—stares into space, it summons a maxim of war fighting: occupy the high ground. And so Hermann Oberth, who always, like von Braun, maintained his primary goal was the peaceful exploration of space, made it a point to note that mirrors put up there might be aimed back at Earth to boil oceans or burn up cities.

One of von Braun’s Nazi compatriots, Walter Dornberger, remembered Hitler’s zeal for an “Amerikabomber” that would skip across the top of Earth’s atmosphere and rain hellfire on the enemy below—a concept he rebranded for his new masters at the U.S. Air Force.

The space dream remains primarily a weapons program. In August, Elon Musk’s SpaceX signed a deal worth billions of dollars to launch U.S. Space Force vehicles into orbit, followed in October by a $150 million contract to build space-based missile-tracking systems.

The Cold War competition to occupy the ultimate high ground was the context for America’s fearful reaction to the shocking news that broke in 1957: The Soviets had successfully launched a satellite that was orbiting Earth and could be spotted, on a clear night, from most backyards. The resulting space race reconfigured the U.S. economy in ways von Braun had prescribed. Within a decade, the aerospace industry vied with automobile manufacturers in the number of Americans it employed.

However, only a minuscule percentage were working on manned spaceflight. Instead, the logic driving this bonanza was Mutual Assured Destruction—the doctrine that neither the Soviets nor the Americans would launch a nuclear attack because it was a given that the other side would use its own nuclear-tipped missiles, guided by satellite-gathered mapping, to annihilate the initiator.

The drive to miniaturize electronics to fit in the nose cones of guided nuclear missiles caused the U.S. government to finance the development of microchips. As the military provided an expanding market for microchips, their price fell, so that young engineers like Steve Wozniak could design them into new commercial products such as the Apple home computer.

My father happened to work with Steve Wozniak’s dad, Jerry, at Lockheed Missiles & Space Company in Sunnyvale, California, engineering spy satellites. One day in the early 1970s, Dad learned he’d been chosen to work on a different project: the building of a nuclear-powered rocket that might someday propel humans to Mars. My parents celebrated the news by holding a Tiki-themed party on the back deck to the swinging sounds of Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66. The nuclear rocket project was soon canceled, but that party was emblematic of the moment—a lava lamp–like swirl of social worries, pop catharsis, techno-swagger, and New Age manifestos for reaching our true human potential.

One self-styled prophet of the new space consciousness was Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who assured his eager postwar readership that one day, ambitious new programs of interplanetary evacuation would be commonplace: 200,000 people would someday inhabit rotating terrariums floating in the void. As O’Neill wrote in Physics Today in 1974, “Careful engineering and cost analysis shows we can build pleasant, self-sufficient dwelling places in space within the next two decades, solving many of Earth’s problems.”

O’Neill’s believers joined newly fashionable ecological ideas with a conviction that smart design can replicate nature—or else hack the natural order of things to work for us no matter how hostile the setting. They improbably tore some of their ideas from the Whole Earth Catalog’s organic, small-is-beautiful ethos—as if Wendell Berry’s Kentucky farm could be hoisted into orbit.

No one preached this high modernist ecology more compellingly than Carl Sagan, the soothing presence on PBS telling us how cool the cosmos was. His voice resonated with the authority of science, but it was also mixed with an ineffable sweetness, which cast him as the ideal-type narrator for the next great chapter in the quest for mastery of worlds beyond ours.

So when Sagan proposed that spaceships with hulls full of genetically engineered bacteria could dump their loads into the poison skies of Venus, thus triggering the manufacture of oxygen, leading to the cooling and greening of that planet so it could be made into our next Earth within some number of centuries, we listened and nodded. A kinder, gentler dream of terraforming, in retrospect. Of course, we baby-boomers had been primed by TV for such matter-of-fact presentations of the irrelevantly absurd. The jokey Jetsons, muddling through their harried lives in space suburbia. The crew of Star Trek boldly going. And, jacked straight into my nine-year-old brain as I sat in my pajamas, what looked to be the family vacation gone awry in Lost in Space.

Whatever bad things might be occurring back on Earth or right there on the latest planet they’d crashed onto, the wandering Robinsons proved the white nuclear family was preserved, still driving across something like an Arizona desert in their high-tech van. Heterosexual masculine primacy, I was pleased to learn, would persist; it was the simpering stowaway Dr. Smith, clearly coded as effeminately gay, who caused all the exasperation to father John and the dashing pilot, Don, even as they kept cleaning up his messes between blowing up aliens.

I once had occasion to speak with June Lockhart, who played the mother in Lassie before becoming the mom in a silver jumpsuit on Lost in Space. This was in 1995, two years before the Robinsons supposedly left an overcrowded Earth in their flying saucer and 27 years after the show ceased its original run. Lockhart told me she’d been quietly frustrated with the way her character was defined.

“Word came down from CBS” that she and her husband, played by Guy Williams, were not allowed to express affection for each other. “The word was that it embarrassed children to see their parents hugging and kissing. Even when it came to him giving me his hand to help me down off the last step as we got off the spaceship, the word was ‘Don’t touch her’!”

Lockhart did not appreciate being pushed to the periphery of all the action, either. A rule on the show, explained Paul Zastupnevich, who was a close assistant to Lost in Space’s creator, Irwin Allen, was that “Mother must never be in jeopardy.” He scoffingly recalled to me how the producers kept trying to sexualize the young teen daughter, Penny, but treated the mother as sexless. Irwin Allen, he noted, had been orphaned as a child. “Irwin didn’t know what a family relationship was”—and so the mother of the future was all chaste efficiency, lacking actual human agency.

That every planet the Robinson family visited mimicked the gravity, breathable air, and sunshine of Earth was a given, since Hollywood merely uses space, as did Fritz Lang, as a blank screen upon which to project anxieties, desires, and other vagaries of the human heart.

Mark Armstrong, the son of the first man to step onto the moon, once told me “Star Trek drove my father crazy. The Starship Enterprise would whoosh by, and my father would shake his head. He’d say, ‘You wouldn’t get that noise in space. Sound is caused by molecules moving, and molecules in space are too few and far apart to generate sound.’”

Yet the American space-industrial complex is sustained by Hollywood hokum.

All those many years after the brief three-year run of Lost in Space, June Lockhart told me she liked to drop into Houston’s Mission Control and chat on the radio with the shuttle astronauts as they orbited Earth. NASA, she said, always made her feel very welcome. “Nearly everyone I meet there—whether it’s a physicist, an engineer, an astronaut or the guy who zips up the space suits—they all say watching Lost in Space made them know what they wanted to do when they grew up.”

When Ronald Reagan proposed an automated space “shield” that would render the Soviets’ nuclear missiles impotent by shooting them down, a movie title became its shorthand name: Star Wars. The blockbuster film franchise Star Wars has gone on to employ thousands and enrich many corporations. And for a time, until it was proved too daunting a feat of software coding, Star Wars the military extravaganza enriched many more corporations while funding a vast network of researchers and engineers.

Out of Star Wars the movie has grown a fervent fandom roiled by debates over how much racial, gender, and sexual diversity should be reflected in the casting of our dreamscapes. Out of Star Wars the weapons program grew the internet and critical advances in artificial intelligence.

A famous genesis story for Elon Musk is that his ambitions sprang from comic books—and that a comic-book movie hero sprang, in turn, from his ambitions. The bullied, miserable boy with the father he later called “a terrible human being” would read one comic after another at the local shop in Pretoria until, he says, he’d read them all.

In those comics, the story is told again and again of a world coming undone because of villainous evil or human frailty. Then to the rescue, from unsuspected origins, arrives a superhero.

As a 14-year-old, Musk also was particularly inspired by Douglas Adams’s droll novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the hero learns his planet is about to be destroyed, so he skips out on the next spaceship, only to be dumped loose in outer space. And in a fitting art-imitating-life-imitating-art twist, the wisecracking brainiac techno-titan that Musk grew up to be is said to have supplied the template for the wisecracking brainiac techno-titan Robert Downey Jr. plays in the Iron Man movies.

Musk famously made millions co-founding PayPal, and plowed those earnings into the Tesla electric car company and SpaceX. He utilizes popular culture as instinctively as did von Braun—though today’s popcult landscape is markedly different. Musk, who fathered a child named X Æ A-12 with his pop star girlfriend, Grimes, in 2018 sported an OCCUPY MARS T-shirt as a guest on Joe Rogan’s videocast, on which he smoked a joint, warned artificial intelligence will advance “outside of human control,” and said that if we were “forever confined to Earth, this would not be a good future.”

Musk joked as well about fun he’s had selling 20,000 flamethrowers for $500 each through his Boring Company. “I said, ‘Don’t buy this flamethrower. Don’t buy it. Don’t buy it,’” he told Rogan with a bad-boy glint in his eye. “It’s a bad idea.”

At one point, Rogan wondered aloud: “How does this motherfucker have all this time and all this energy and all these ideas and then people just let him do these things?”

“Because I’m an alien,” Musk answered with a half-grin.

Rogan found solace in this notion of human salvation. “If there was, like, maybe an intelligent being that we created, you know like some A.I. creature that’s … superior to people and [could] maybe just hang around with us for a while like you’ve been doing and then fix a bunch of shit—maybe that’s the way,” he said, eyeing Musk for affirmation.

“I might have some mutation or something like that ... probably,” said Musk, still grinning the half-grin of the anointed one.

More than 37 million people have watched the two-and-a-half-hour interview, confirming Musk’s appeal as the perfect space visionary for the moment. Musk is so disruptively different from von Braun and all else before him—this rich geek defeating the government space monolith at its own game while fixing up a bunch of shit. We seem to have come light-years. And yet, in most respects, we are pretty much right where we started.

Musk’s SpaceX workforce remains overwhelmingly male and white and, according to reports, decidedly unwoke. The main business of its reusable rocket design is not crossing the 38 million miles to Mars but putting satellites in low-Earth orbit 350 miles above the ground—about the distance from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley.

Their purpose is to facilitate a cheaper broadband internet service. Musk has landed the Army as a customer and seems to be angling to get the government to pay for the whole thing. Wernher von Braun, who once admitted, “I have to be a two-headed monster—scientist and public-relations man,” would appreciate the hustle.

While Musk points us to a distant star, his other hand splays like a puppeteer’s, strings descending to connect everybody and everything in our present, single world. Surveillance by governments inevitably will be further empowered. Von Braun sensed the demand seven decades earlier, rhapsodizing that from low orbit “nothing will go unobserved.”

Musk aims to send aloft more than 40,000 satellites to join the 5,000 already up there (many of them dead, and joined by some 34,000 other good-size chunks of “space junk”). Experts warn he will blot out astronomers’ views and create a space junk nightmare, but space lord Elon proceeds to build an ugly development on the edge of the sky, raising billions in equity for his Starlink “constellation,” and making noises about an initial public offering. The Starlink project has analysts predicting that SpaceX could become worth $120 billion.

But while the equity market studies SpaceX’s telecom play, what creates popular buzz is the comic-book story of apocalypse and redemption. We are all sitting around von Braun’s campfire in rapt attention. Never mind that Musk’s Mars Starship prototypes keep exploding.

The bizarre belief persists that even as the digital capitalism hollows out the middle class, destabilizes our politics, and delivers stratospheric wealth to just a few, it will be those same mega-billionaires who deliver us from our unraveling fate.

In their hungers for the role, today’s sellers of the space dream are alike. Musk, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Virgin founder Richard Branson, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen all as boys “mostly read the same science fiction,” a New Yorker review of Christian Davenport’s book The Space Barons notes. “The space barons were all outsiders as young men; they’re all obsessed with rockets; they all want, more than anything, to win. Their space ventures are supposedly driven by a common goal of elevating or saving humankind, but they don’t always treat others humanely.”

If anything, this armchair diagnosis goes too easy on the space barons: They are wounded and megalomaniacal, and it is difficult to know which of them is more cautionary. Maybe Bezos; if it’s all about whose is biggest, then Bezos wins by predicting a trillion humans will someday populate the universe. Musk merely vows to put a million people on Mars by sending three rockets a day to fill “a lot of jobs” there.

Given that Bezos himself admits that “space is really easy to overhype,” it’s probably worth asking how many regular people really buy it. A Gallup Poll last year found that, for the first time since the question was asked in 1969, a majority of Americans would favor “the United States setting aside money” for a mission to Mars.

But any conclusions about our actual, executable preferences would need to factor in salience—the weighing of one desirable against another to gauge strength of conviction. If I ask how you feel about me putting aside some of our money for more comic books, you are likely to say sure. If I ask whether you’d prefer I spend that money on comic books or, say, pandemic prevention measures and a vaccine, your answer is likely to be different. In fact, fewer that one in five Americans want a Mars mission to be NASA’s top priority, according to a Pew Research survey. They’d prefer the focus be on space projects solving problems here on Earth.

That is likely why Musk, who in the past acknowledged taxpayers’ funding was crucial to his rocket business, nowadays makes it sound like a private airline, suggesting tickets to Mars can go for the low, low price of $100,000. And if passengers don’t like it there, he’ll ship them back for free.

In any case, one can imagine that our understanding of what is salient and what is deluded noise has been recalibrated by Covid-19. We have been reminded of the role of policy in the immediate public interest, of interdependent governance, of scientific research and engineering applied to saving lives now and in the near future. We understand our fragility as a species more than ever, but we also see that the real forces that can stave off catastrophe have more to do with mundane social cooperation than with emblazoning any one man’s visions across the heavens: washing our hands, social distancing, donning masks and gloves, and supporting embattled frontline health care workers and grocery clerks. After so much social isolation, absence has made the heart grow fonder for the only planet we know.

From this vantage, we should be able to see that the mind of Elon Musk is powerful but untrustworthy, as if missing a key line of code. Some glitch in the systems engineer would not accept the knowledge of epidemiologists who’d seen tens of thousands already die in other countries. Instead, he deemed construction of a Mars colony to be an essential service.

We might ponder all this from a different point on Earth less infected by the American space fever, and consider the perspective of Mark McCaughrean, who is a senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency.

“It’s a wild-eyed investment pitch, pumped up by the enthusiasm of credulous fanboys brought up on comic book sci-fi, wrapped in evangelism of saving humanity from itself & the problems we’ve wrought on this planet, a kind of modern day manifest destiny,” he tweeted in response to a 2017 paper by Musk laying out his plan for getting to Mars.

McCaughrean wasn’t done, so he sent another lamentation to the skies, which bounced off one satellite or another and back to reality. “I’m less concerned about making humans a multi-planetary species,” he tweeted, “than I am about making the Earth a sustainable multi-species planet, before we go gadding off colonising the solar system.”

Ellen Stofan, a former NASA chief scientist, dared to speak similar heresy with cooler, stoic precision. “Job one is to keep this planet habitable,” she said. “There isn’t a planet B.”