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P.T. Barnum does it again

Image: Cameron Russell

If you are in the business of getting people to pay you to (fail to) do the impossible, you must dress up the possible every now and then and put on a show.  Our modern day P.T. Barnum does this with sickening regularity, and, like any good magician or con artist, manages to distract a gullible public every time.

I refer, of course, to Mr Musk; a man who is the epitome of everything that is wrong with our fast collapsing civilisation.  Even as the human habitat here on earth collapses, Musk demands that we fund his ludicrous mission to colonise Mars.  Even as we mine the last of the earth’s resources, he demands that we let him use them to build hyperloops that can never work and heavy trucks that will never run.

In practice, and despite more than $4bn in public grants and subsidies, Musk’s actual achievements – as opposed to his wild promises – are mediocre.  He is not the first person to invest in and build electric cars; and his track record so far suggests he will soon be eclipsed by mainstream car manufacturers as they switch to building hybrids and EVs.  The powerwall battery is impressive compared to the banks of (easily recycled) lead acid batteries used for decades by people wanting to go off grid.  However, a solution to grid-scale electricity storage it most certainly isn’t – it is far too expensive in both cost and resource terms.

Blasting a Tesla car into space – which may be the only way of getting one to clock more than 100,000 miles – makes for an impressive show, but strip away the hype and it is also on a par with Musk’s usual mediocrity.  Compared to rockets today (but not those in design) the Falcon Heavy is, indeed, a monster.  But that is only because beyond earth orbit manned space flight is but one of a growing list of things that our civilisation used to be able to do, but no longer can.

In fact, compared to the giant Saturn V rocket that took three men at a time to the Moon and back, and later launched the SkyLab space station into orbit, the Falcon Heavy is a tiddler.  As David Szondy at New Atlas explains:

“… the Falcon Heavy can put a payload of 140,700 lb (63,800 kg) into low Earth orbit at an inclination of 28.5 degrees. It could also reach escape velocity to send 35,000 lb (16,000 kg) to the Moon.  Saturn V? Its low Earth orbit throw weight is over twice the Heavy’s at 310,000 lb (140,000 kg) with a 30° inclination. Getting to escape velocity, it can loft 107,100 lb (48,600 kg) into lunar orbit. That’s the equivalent of nine full grown elephants – without their spacesuits.”

Like the Tesla sports car, the Falcon Heavy has one advantage over the Saturn V – it is (at least in theory) commercial.  It is designed to put heavy satellites into orbit (something the Saturn V was never designed for).  And that’s the point.  Forget the nonsense about going to Mars or even the Moon – those are things that are not going to happen.  But by holding out the promise, Musk has managed to persuade the numbskull guardians of the public purse to hand over grants and subsidies to allow him to build a commercially viable alternative to the long since retired Space Shuttle, from which he, but not the American people, will reap the rewards.

The Saturn V was designed specifically for the Moon landings – which is one reason it was so expensive.  The Falcon Heavy is designed to put satellites into orbit – which, along with its reusable sections, makes it cheaper (provided they don’t crash into the ocean).  But any rocket that aims to transport colonists and their equipment on the six to eight month journey to Mars will need to be more powerful (and more expensive) than both rockets combined.

It would be churlish, of course, to single out Musk for wasting private investors’ money on pipe dreams about going to Mars, recreating the vacuum of space inside metal tubes in California, or attempting to use heavy lithium-ion batteries to power long-distance trucks.  After all, wasting money on entirely useless products and activities is more or less what defines our culture.  Where Musk should bear the brunt of public wrath is in his willingness to play fast and loose with public funds that would be better spent elsewhere.

America’s railways and bridges are falling apart.  In many US towns, water supplies are polluted as the water and sewage system fails faster than public authorities can get around to fixing it.  Several states are now unable to afford to meet their pension commitments.  Others are still coming to terms with the hurricanes, floods and wildfires that struck the country last summer.  Florida, where officials are banned from mentioning climate change, is slowly sinking beneath the Atlantic.  In any sane civilisation, fixing these ills would be a much greater priority than handing over billions of dollars to enable Mr Musk to chase impossible dreams.

But then again, this is precisely what we have become.  Even as everything we hold dear collapses around our ears, we need a new P.T. Barnum to put on a show.  As the environmental, energetic and economic collapse of western civilisation gathers pace, we need the comfort of impossible dreams to distract us from the growing decay all around us.  For those who rule us, a few $billion of extra printed currency (which will soon be worthless anyway) to distract everyone is probably a price worth paying compared to the social costs of addressing – and thus admitting – the predicament we are really in.

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