For centuries, history has taught us that history itself was made and changed by visionaries. Men and women who saw answers, solutions, opportunity and hope where others saw absolutely nothing.
History also tells us that more often than not, those “visionaries” walked to the beat of their own drum. They have repeatedly been described as “geniuses,” “gamblers,” “gunslingers,” “eccentrics” and “loners.”
At any given time, Elon Musk – the founder and CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, and numerous other cutting-edge business entities – can lay claim to one or all of those descriptions.
That said, in real time and right before our very eyes, we may be witnessing an individual whom history will single-out and glorify years and even centuries from now.
Ultimately, that will all depend upon Musk and the decisions he makes now.
If one bothers to look, there are a number of positive -- as well as cautionary -- parallels between Musk and the truly visionary, genius, eccentric, gunslinger, loner that was Howard Hughes.
For those who do study history, one of the best ways to describe the Howard Hughes of the 1930’s and 1940’s to today’s audience would be to label him as: “The Elon Musk of his time.”
People would immediately get it.
His personal life and “eccentricities” aside, most people would acknowledge that Howard Hughes was an accomplished creative genius who captivated the media and public of his time while positively affecting the quality of life when he was alive.
Almost five decades after the passing of Howard Hughes, his “larger-than-life” name has not only taken-up permanent residence in popular culture, but his inventions, charities, and legacy still impact our nation and the world today.
Hughes’ most critical strength was that he was a perpetual idea-machine. When he cast his eyes upon life, he immediately envisioned ways to improve it. That vision and strength was also seen as a weakness in the sense that Hughes often lost focus and interest with too many “solutions” bouncing about in his gifted mind at any one time.
The question then becomes, is Elon Musk blessed and cursed with the same strength and the same weakness?
In late May of this year, Musk’s SpaceX corporation amazed and mesmerized much of the world with the history making first successful launch of a commercially built and operated spacecraft carrying two astronauts. Two astronauts riding in the SpaceX built Crew Dragon spacecraft launched atop the SpaceX built Falcon 9 rocket booster.
While some other billionaires are focused on and distracted by partisan political issues, Musk is looking toward the stars and humanity’s future in space.
Musk is a true visionary and must be lauded for realizing that all of humanity’s eggs can’t be kept in the one Earth-basket. A worry he rightfully articulated again during an interview last week for the 2020 Mars Society Virtual Convention.
Musk does realize Earth is constantly at risk of destruction from human-created war, viruses, and pollution. Layer atop of that natural disasters and the seemingly growing threats posed by asteroids, and the final bell of the egg-timer signaling the end of life on Earth is not far-fetched.
Musk knows this and is stepping up to the plate in a very big way to preserve humanity. He does know it would be the height of irresponsibility for those with the means to get a representation of humanity permanently off the planet, not to do so.
The question being: Is he going too fast and is he looking too far out?
During the same virtual interview for the 2020 Mars Society Convention, Musk confirmed that getting a sustained representation of humanity to the Red Planet is his goal and stressed that with “exponential innovation, we can probably send an uncrewed mission there in maybe four years.”
Great. But again, why rush it and why not pick a much closer and much easier destination?
One would think that with the rather “traditional” successful launch of the Crew Dragon in May, Musk would logically next look toward the Moon and its many very promising resources just three days from Earth as the first place to start a human colony.
But no. While he might give the Moon a passing glance, he is laser-focused on getting humans to Mars. By his own account, eventually about one million people.
All by 2050.
As Musk himself has outlined, that would entail launching three of his yet to be flown “Starships” per-day. Three a day. Each one carrying 100 humans prepared to colonize Mars. It is by no means “crazy.” But it is also far from practical.
Any and every visionary has a bit of P.T. Barnum in them. If you can’t sell the sizzle, you can’t get them into the tent. Elon Musk is the real deal. But he is not above selling the sizzle when needed. Hence, why he is a multi-billionaire.
But even multi-billionaire visionaries can be wrong from time to time. Until his “Starship” performs as advertised, Musk should shift his eyes, his fortune, and his genius toward the Moon and not let it – and a “Mars or nothing” attitude -- become his “Spruce Goose.”
Whether he knows it or not, humanity actually is counting on him and his genius.
Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and a long-time consultant on the space program.