- - Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Is billionaire Elon Musk a long-headed business pioneer or is he a throwback to the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn who exploits gullibility in search of fame and riches?

A basis for decision surfaced on September 27, 2016, at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. Then and there, Mr. Musk unveiled his business plan for an interplanetary spaceship to colonize Mars. But will the colonists come when he does call for them?

He acknowledged that they would confront a very high risk of death: “The first journey to Mars is going to be really very dangerous. The risk of fatality will be high. There’s just no way around it.” Indeed, Mr. Musk declared he would never buy a ticket to Mars “because I’d like to see my kids grow up and everything.” To avoid liability for a failure to warn, each Mars colonist would be asked, “Are you prepared to die?” Only those answering in the affirmative would be eligible to travel. Despite the probability of death, Musk chirped that colonists would come because, “It’ll be, like really fun to go. You”ll have a great time.”

Mr. Musk anticipated sticker because the current cost of a one-way ticket approximates a cool $10 billion, excluding the stupendous premium for life or accident insurance. But Musk argued that the cost could plunge to a range of $200,000-$500,000 if Space X vehicles transported 100 passengers per flight at 26-month intervals when the distance between the Earth and Mars was at its nadir. But why would anyone pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a journey more dangerous than playing Russian roulette.

Moreover, Mars is not a glamorous destination spot, and the travel itself would challenge all but the most hearty and resolute. Estimated flying time using currently available technology would range from six to nine months. Jet lag would be taken to an entirely new level. Upon arrival, the colonists would confront radiation, solar flares, weak gravity, frigid cold, toxic soil, and the law of the jungle. (Mr. Musk has not drafted anything like the Mayflower Compact). There would be no transportation, hotels, highways, movie theaters, medical facilities, shopping malls, or any of the amenities expected by ultra-rich travelers. It would be no place to raise children.

In sum, selling tickets to colonize Mars would be more challenging than selling tickets to vacation in Ittoqqortourmilt, Greenland. That’s why Musk conceives his endeavor as a ‘huge public-private partnership,” with the public taking the lion’s share of the risk. That has been his business model for Tesla, SolarCity, and Space X. He is adept at convincing the public to subsidize his childish dreams or distractions.

His explanation for craving the colonization of Mars casts doubt on his maturity: “The objective is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multiplanet species” in order to make humanity far less vulnerable to extinction.

But the danger of extinction comes in part from billionaires like Mr. Musk who dissipate their genius and wealth on frivolities for the few while the misery index of the species spirals from war, illiteracy, disease, poverty, tyranny, oppression, and subjugation. Flirting with colonizing Mars in these circumstances is as irresponsible as would have been waltzing to the Blue Danube on the Titanic as the ship approached the iceberg.

Mr. Musk needs to grow up. He should emulate Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy which built more than 2,500 libraries throughout the world. That is his best ticket to live for the ages.

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