Skip to main content

A pioneer in space and on Earth

By W. Patrick McCray, Special to CNN
updated 2:42 PM EDT, Mon June 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • SpaceX successfully launched the Dragon capsule to the space station
  • W. Patrick McCray: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, is a "visioneer"
  • He says people like Musk can take ideas out of science fiction and turn them into reality
  • McCray: America must make sure it remains the top destination for visioneers

Editor's note: W. Patrick McCray is a professor of the history of science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "The Visioneers: How a group of elite scientists pursued space colonies, nanotechnologies, and a limitless future" (Princeton University Press).

(CNN) -- Recently, technology enthusiasts around the planet had the opportunity to get better acquainted with Elon Musk, the creator of SpaceX, the first privately owned company to send a spacecraft to the space station.

Launched in the same manner as a Silicon Valley startup, SpaceX designed and manufactured the Dragon capsule, which successfully completed a mission with the International Space Station before splashing down into the Pacific Ocean.

I see Musk, a 40-year-old entrepreneur who made his fortune by co-founding PayPal, as a "visioneer." That is to say, he is someone who combines scientific and engineering prowess -- in his case, a degree in physics -- with an expansive view of how technology will upend traditional economic models, and has the ability to inspire others to support his work.

W. Patrick McCray
W. Patrick McCray

Musk has bold visions for the future. When he finished college, he identified three areas that could change the world. One was the Internet; another was new sources of energy; and the third was transforming our civilization in such a way so that it could expand out into the solar system.

His success with PayPal and then with Tesla Motors -- a company he started that makes high-performance electric roadsters -- pushed him to take on the challenge of SpaceX. The successful launch of Dragon was a big step toward the completion of Musk's trifecta.

SpaceX launches first private spacecraft

Musk's entrepreneurial activities rest on the shoulders of previous visioneers. In the 1970s, Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill achieved celebrity status for designing and advocating free-floating space colonies as the new frontier for humanity. In 1977, when California hosted its first Space Day, O'Neill's ideas were discussed by scientists, aerospace executives and politicians, including then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

While today, such visions of the future seem fantastical -- space colonies ... really? -- they make more sense if seen in the context of their time. In O'Neill's day, fears of overpopulation, resource shortages and general eco-catastrophism permeated public discussions and popular culture as people fretted about an impending era of limits. Compared with that era's other mega-projects such as the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, O'Neill's ideas were not so far-fetched.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk

Musk has inherited O'Neill's concept for the "humanization of space." But like other dot-com billionaires who make up the so-called NewSpace movement, his pursuits have a decided libertarian strain. Many visioneers champion free markets, less government, fewer regulations and profits for those who test the technological envelope. This is different from what O'Neill had in mind, which aimed mostly to benefit society at large.

Musk may be the most prominent visioneer, but he is not the only one. Recently, the New York Times profiled J. Craig Venter, the biologist-entrepreneur who is hoping to create bioengineered bacteria that can generate food and fuel for an increasingly crowded planet. Then there are others who have proposed radical geoengineering schemes, such as injecting tons of sunlight-reflecting particulates into the stratosphere as a way to address the threat of climate change.

So far, America has remained the No.1 destination for people such as Musk or Venter. As the rest of the world catches up -- think China -- and competes with us on innovation and technology, we must make sure that our country can continue to attract brilliant minds who can take speculative ideas out of the hands of sci-fi writers and technological forecasters and put them on firmer ground. The U.S. government as well as private groups like the X Prize Foundation can play an important role in stimulating and helping budding visioneers through prizes, funding or other forms of support.

For someone like Musk, the present is merely a prototype -- a provisional plan for what may become a magnificent and perhaps less limited future. Who knows, his trailblazing might just make it feasible and affordable for you to take a vacation to Mars.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of W. Patrick McCray.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT