By Gwynne Dyer

The upside of Elon Musk is that he is a genius who has done useful things for the human race. He mass-produced electric vehicles for the first time, and he may yet get the human race out into the Solar system for good.

Musk’s downside is that he is a political idiot with the impulse control of a ten-year-old boy. So the big question is whether he gets the Starship/Super Heavy system up and running before his random political enthusiasms drive him into bankruptcy.

That’s the real space race, between Musk A and Musk B.

Let’s say it will take another five years to get fully functional Starships into serial production. That’s how long Musk has to stay alive and solvent in order to carry the Starship project to a point where it can continue in the hands of others even if he goes broke.

His continued presence at the head of Space X is necessary because the development project that has got him this far involves learning by doing. That involves lots of failures in the form of spectacular explosions and ‘rapid unscheduled disassemblies’ in the course of reaching the goal.

Compared to the traditional government-financed rockets built by NASA and its Russian and Chinese rivals, this approach works out faster and cheaper in the end. But there’s a very high burn rate of cash until success is achieved, and that required either boundless cash or boundless investor confidence (same thing, really) in the developer.

Musk has managed to create and maintain that confidence and the cash keeps flowing, but it’s still a high-risk way of working. One really bad crash that involved a large loss of human life (improbable but always possible) could bring him down.

So could a bankruptcy elsewhere in his empire, most likely in Twitter. (Sorry, ‘X’)
Why should we even care? Because getting Starship/Super Heavy onto the market in multiple copies is important. It will revolutionise everything to do with space flight, because the cost of getting anything into orbit will drop from $60,000 (NASA’s Space Launch System) to $10 a kilo (Musk’s Starship).

If Musk is over-promising and the real cost is ten times higher than that, it would still be a thousandfold cut in the cost of lifting a kilo of anything to low-earth orbit.

Never mind Mars (Musk’s dream). With this technology, you can build immense arrays of solar panels that harvest non-stop all-weather sunlight in space and beam it down to Earth for energy.

You can start mining minerals that are rare on Earth but may be plentiful on the Moon and various asteroids. You can build orbital factories that exploit zero gravity for various chemical and pharmaceutical processes.

You can do all sorts of things we hadn’t even taken seriously before, because at $10-$100 per kilo to orbit it all becomes affordable, including refueling in orbit for more distant destinations.

What makes Musk so important for that?

We could have had all this technology by the mid-1980s, but the two countries then financing space flight, the US and the Soviet Union, lost interest after the US won the race to the Moon and détente de-escalated the Cold War.
Until and unless space flight becomes a widespread and commercially viable business, a shift in the political winds could stall it again. That is what makes Musk the indispensable man for the moment. Without him the momentum could easily be lost again.