“It’s pretty amazing that we live in an age when the CEO of two public companies can give a talk about colonizing Mars and shareholders don’t see that as a warning signal.” — David Einhorn, president of Greenlight Capital, October 28, 2016
Einhorn has a point there. After all, when Elon Musk discussed the capability of not just sending people to Mars but actually colonizing the planet, back on September 27th, one almost believed that this fantastic dream was not just possible but probable. Few connected his vision with the fact that, for reasons the company didn’t understand at first, his most recent SpaceX rocket simply blew up on the launch pad.
Nor did any critics rush out to remind the public that actually going to Mars will be slightly more difficult than creating the computer-generated video showing the engineering work as being something of a piece of cake. True, Musk suggested that he would probably pass on making this journey due to the likelihood of certain death. But he should at least have mentioned the good news that if you were the volunteer selected to go to Mars, more than likely you would end up with an elementary school named after you. Posthumously.
Even space.com’s headline screamed, “SpaceX’s Elon Musk Unveils Interplanetary Spaceship to Colonize Mars.” Of course it was nothing like a real unveiling, merely the aforementioned video. Still, the media ate it up, airing story after story about Musk’s bold and brave vision for someone (else) to go to Mars — in a rocket ship that is a combination of 2001, A Space Odyssey, The Martian, and 1953’s Abbott and Costello Go to Mars.
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Yes, Einhorn is right. It’s amazing that nobody, not even investors in companies Musk controls, seems alarmed that those companies, while capturing the imagination and pocketbooks of thousands and thousands of customers, have yet to turn any profit or even show how they might in the near to middle term. So let’s contrast this interstellar vision of naming rights for elementary schools with the full weight, power and finances of the United States government. Just for grins.
Space — the Former Frontier
On January 14, 2004, then-President George W. Bush made a grand proclamation, known as the Vision for Space Exploration, which called for a lunar outpost by 2012 and then on to Mars within a decade or so after that. Well, if the president was hoping to elicit some kind of “shock and awe” from the public with his grand vision for our future in space, it was definitely not forthcoming — from the press or from the people. Three years later, on September 24, 2007, Michael Griffin, then head of NASA, said we might be able to launch a mission to Mars by 2037. To do that, he said, we would need to divert $11 billion from other NASA projects. For the record, we did not build a lunar outpost four years ago.
Fewer people remember that his father, also a former President Bush, had sounded a clarion call for America to travel to Mars; he did so on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, in 1989. This would be called the Space Exploration Initiative, or SEI, and would be shipped to NASA for cost estimates. At that time it was suggested we’d have that lunar base and mission to Mars up and running by 2025, and we could do it all for a mere $541 billion.
Unwilling to have the experts snuff out the President’s dream of going to Mars, Vice President Dan Quayle took the NASA study over to the National Academies of Science for a peer review, but they seemed to back up NASA’s study and cost estimates. So nothing happened. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems that when presidents promise to ship us to Mars, the consolation prize always seems to be war in the Middle East instead.
Think about that. Two presidents plus NASA can’t make a mission to Mars seem appealing; and they get more than a fair amount of criticism just for suggesting it. But let Elon Musk bring it up and the whole world goes crazy for the idea.
Vertical Takeoff and Lunacy
This is a good place to bring up that Uber’s Travis Kalenick released a white paper on October 29th. In it he outlined the company’s plans for a new division known as Uber Elevate, which will deliver flying car taxi rides for the same cost as being chauffeured in an Uber X. Just 30 years ago a whole room full of reporters, desperately trying to stay awake for a major corporate announcement by drinking large coffees, would have comically spewed their Starbucks if someone had suggested that in 10 years flying electric taxis would be the norm. But this year virtually all of the media stories, including USA Today’s, laid out this story as if flying taxis were a fait accompli. USA Today’s piece even included this quote:
“‘Imagine traveling from San Francisco’s Marina (district) to work in downtown San Jose — a drive that would normally occupy the better part of two hours — in only 15 minutes,’ writes Jeff Holden, Uber's chief product officer, and Nikhil Goel, the company's product manager for Uber Elevate and advanced programs, in the white paper.”
Then the reporter in this case, without even having the grace to blush, writes, “A 45-mile pool VTOL for example, would replace a 60-mile car ride for potentially as low as $21.”
At what point does someone remind the business journalists covering Uber, not to mention the company itself, that just a few months ago Uber was jumping up and down promoting self-driving cars and gushing about how great it will be when they can save money by firing all their drivers? Oh, and now Uber says that that reality will come in the same time frame as the newest fantasy, flying taxis.
There’s a huge difference between using an iPhone app to summon an Uber taxi to come to your home and doing the same expecting a VTOL flying car to land in the middle of your street. For one thing, the FAA would likely take a dim view of such activity. Or maybe, as it has with its taxi business, Uber plans to ignore basic and intelligent regulations to protect consumers, simply expanding that plan of non-compliance to a federal level with airborne vehicles.
If landing a VTOL flying car on a residential street is out of the question, maybe landing it on a downtown street during rush hour to let you and you alone to get out and go to work would be easier. But let’s look at the example that Uber flying cars could take you from the San Francisco Marina to Silicon Valley in a few minutes. That could cause a bit of a problem, because thousands of flying Uber cars would be moving directly through the controlled airspace of at least the San Francisco International Airport, and quite possibly that of San Jose’s airport.
I’m just holding my breath waiting for Uber to announce its next big vision, that these flying cars — which, like the self-driving car, do not yet exist — will be self-piloted, too.
Genius Junior Birdmen
The genius of his day, Henry Ford, used to make outrageous promises of things that ultimately never happened. He promised the world the “Model T of the air” with his little Flivver airplane, for example; but, when his favorite test pilot died in one, that ended that dream. In its place Ford did give us the TriMotor airplane, which promptly launched our aviation industry in a big way. But fewer than 200 of those were built and Ford quickly exited the aviation industry.
Still, along the way he did build the first airport in that part of Michigan and gave $5 rides in his aircraft to convince the public that flying was part of our future. Not only that, but his engineers perfected radio navigation for aircraft, which allowed long distance flying in all weather conditions and was the norm until satellite navigation came into being.
At the urging of President Eisenhower, K.T. Keller left his job as head of Chrysler, taking some of his company’s best engineers, to work on our missile programs. Werner von Braun may have been the poster boy for our space program, but it was Chrysler’s engineers who figured out how to make our missiles quit blowing up and function correctly. It was the Chrysler guys who gave us the Saturn 5 rocket that took us to the moon, and the last rocket they made allowed our astronauts to dock with the Soviets on July 17, 1975.
Charles Rolls, of Rolls Royce fame, was also an early evangelist for the coming aviation age, but he died at just 32 when the tail broke off his Wright Flyer during a demonstration flight.
Then again, Henry Ford’s decade-long experiments in aviation were totally self-financed. After all, his company had made so much money in the previous decade that Ford had the luxury of buying out all of his backers and was the sole owner of his company. Whatever money he lost with his pipedreams was his alone to lose. The kids running Uber and Tesla have no such luxury.
© 2016 Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace, a member of the American Historical Association, is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, conferred by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:15 on Fox Four’s Good Day and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: email@example.com