18 Jun

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Okay. So I’ve sounded off about the Chinese approach to space, now hear me out about what is, perhaps, the only genuinely new approach to the same subject. Why, the subject of this even has a name…

… Elon Musk.

Most of you, I imagine, have heard about young Elon, but for those who don’t know about him, let me give you a brief catch-up.

Elon Reeve Musk was born on 28 June 1971 (which makes him thirty nine) in Pretoria, South Africa. Elon is a very rich young man indeed – currently worth something over $14 billion, which makes him roughly the eightieth richest person on the planet. But he’s not merely an accumulator of money – a “business magnate” – but a highly original engineer and inventor. A very successful one, as one might have guessed considering he’s rated number 21 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Powerful People.

Which makes him someone we ought to be listening to.

One could imagine some SF writer – Heinlein? – invented Elon Musk, much as I created Kim Ward in Chung Kuo. It’s a similarity that’s emphasised by the fact that this is a man to whom what we recognise as standard science fictional tropes prove to be the everyday materials he chooses to work with – space travel and the colonization of Mars, artificial intelligence, radical new fuel sources, electric cars, massive excavation machines,  robotics and…

Well, you get the picture. Imagine Michelangelo not as painter but as prolific inventor and engineer and you’re partway there. Armed with his eidetic memory, Musk has built a number of mega-companies – such as PayPal, Tesla motors and Space X – with the stated aim of improving life here on earth; reducing global warming through sustainable energy production and consumption, while, at the same time, taking our first few faltering steps in space.

In fact, when you look at it, before Musk came along and pursued these particular goals, no one was pursuing them, at least, not at the level he was taking them on at. I mean, think about it; just what is he responsible for doing? Well let’s start with the radical re-invention of payments on the internet (PayPal); replacing the old gas-guzzling automobiles with sleek electric cars at a worldwide level (Tesla); making re-usable space rockets and radically reducing the cost of delivering supplies (and passengers) to the International Space Station  and eventually on to Mars (Space X). Not to mention the fact that he helped create America’s biggest solar panelling company, SolarCity, almost as a side-line. I mean, how does the guy find time to sleep?

In the last few weeks – and this is where it gets very interesting – Musk visited China, ostensibly concerning the development of Tesla in China. Now normally this kind of thing is negotiated out of sight by senior executives of major companies, but this was noticeably different. For a start, it was Musk himself who turned up in Beijing. And who was there to greet him? Why, none other than the Vice Premier, Wang Yang.

Apart from this all being totally unprecedented, just what was going on?

Okay. Here’s the facts. Tesla have a revenue of over $1 billion from their trade in China, producing electric cars which fulfil China’s stated aim of drastically reducing carbon emissions. What Tesla want is to expand that trade by building a huge car plant in China.

But maybe that’s not why Musk went to Beijing. What if he went not about Tesla (or not only about Tesla) but about Space X?

Now, before Donald Trump was elected, there would have been no point at all. US entrepreneurs are simply not allowed to trade with China – not on matters that have to do with the exploration of space. Just as NASA aren’t. But with Trump in charge the rules may well have changed. So what if Musk went there to start talks on a US-Chinese collaboration in space? On building a bigger and better orbital station. On colonizing Mars. On taking Mankind into its next evolutionary phase.

I know. Even to think about it seems a little crazy. But if anyone could make this work, it’s Elon Musk.

Such a merging of interests might prove mutually beneficial. Might even bring the two great superpowers closer to each other and allay some of the fears I expressed in my piece on China and the militarization of space.

Let’s ask the big question. What does each have that the other might want?

Well, the really obvious one is Space X’s successful development of ‘used rockets’, which, if it can be repeated successfully a sufficient number of times, should prove a huge revolution in space flight, dramatically reducing the cost of getting payloads to the ISS and on from there to the Moon and, ultimately, Mars. And by dramatically what we’re talking about is reducing the cost of reaching the ISS from $1 billion per mission to a mere $60 million, and maybe less. So that’s what the Chinese might get out of any ‘trade’ in space. What would Space X get in return?

Guaranteed finance is one obvious answer. Shared technologies is another. And, patriotic as Musk is, it might prove one huge step for Mankind in bringing the USA and China together as partners in what would be, surely, the most important single venture the two great superpowers could possibly undertake.

I mean, imagine all of that shared pride – American AND Chinese – focused on this most outward of journeys. What is it that the Chinese say? That a voyage of a thousand miles begins with a single step? Well, wouldn’t it be great for us to pick up the dropped baton and get out there, in space once more, creating the future?

Let me know what you think.

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