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Recently, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk addressed employees at the Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas and shared his thoughts about the future of the Starship launch vehicle, in which hopes of returning to the moon and going on to Mars are invested.

Musk started by waxing philosophical. He suggested that alien civilizations are rare in the universe. If humankind ever gets out among the stars, it might find the wreckages of past civilizations that rose and then fell because they were unable to spread beyond a single planet.

Musk proposes that our civilization should not meet that fate, which is why he wants to expand “human consciousness” to Mars, then the asteroid belt, the moons of the outer planets, and eventually, to the stars. He said that he wants to make the world of Star Trek real. The late Gene Roddenberry, wherever he is, must be smiling.

SpaceX, the instrument Musk has built to save humanity, has become a profitable company, a space line built around the Falcon rockets and a telecommunications enterprise consisting of the Starlink satellites. The test campaign for the Starship is the next phase of Musk’s vision.

The main goal for test flight four, scheduled for early May pending FAA approval, is to “soft-land” the Super Heavy first stage in the Gulf of Mexico vertically, simulating what will happen when the rocket touches down on land.

If the ocean landing proves successful, Musk plans to land the Super Heavy back at the Starbase facility during test flight 5. SpaceX will effect the landing by catching the Super Heavy midair with the “Mechazilla” arms and gently lowering it back to the launch pad. Proving the ability to recover the Super Heavy is crucial to making the launch vehicle reusable.

Musk plans to land the Starship in the ocean twice before he attempts to recover one on land. He said he is uninterested in creating an explosion and a debris field, as happened with the first test flight of Starship.

SpaceX also intends to build four launch towers with Mechazilla arms, two at Starbase and two at the Kennedy Space Center in order to support an increased cadence in Starship launches and landings.

The Starship itself will grow taller and capable of lofting 200 metric tons into low Earth orbit and, with refueling, to the moon and Mars.

The Human Landing System version of the Starship will return to low Earth orbit after completing an Artemis mission to the lunar surface. It can be refueled and used for future missions to the moon.

As for Mars, Musk envisions thousands of Starships taking a million people and millions of tons of stuff needed to survive on the Red Planet. The colonial fleet will not return, but will be dismantled for materials on Mars. The first Martian colonists will be pledged to live or die to create Musk’s envisioned new home for humankind. Musk thinks he can send the first uncrewed Starship to Mars in five years.

What is one to make of Musk and his ambitions? Over at Ars Technica, Eric Berger said that “many people will dismiss Musk’s Mars comments as those of a megalomaniac,” but added that “at least in regard to spaceflight, however, that would be wrong.” 

“Musk’s multiplanetary ambitions today are more credible because SpaceX has taken steps toward doing what he said the company would do,” Berger continued.

History has given megalomania a bad name. Too many who were seemingly afflicted with it — Alexander The Great, Caesar, Napoleon, not to mention the tyrants of the 20th century — have filled mass graves with millions in pursuit of world conquest.

If Elon Musk is a megalomaniac, it has driven him to pursue a far more beautiful dream than the subjugation of nations. The Starship is the physical manifestation of that dream of saving human civilization by spreading it beyond Earth, to the moon, Mars, and then beyond.

The “Great Man theory of history” has always been controversial, though examples have included Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, as well as world conquerors. But one should ask how much poorer and unhappier our world would be if Elon Musk were not on it, ironically trying to get off it.

One can hardly wait to see the future Musk means to summon. Sound public policy would include supporting his space ambitions. If he succeeds, human civilization will have changed for the better.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

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