Whenever an individual eclipses all other competitors in a field or industry, he becomes the subject of intense scrutiny and widespread judgement. In many cases this is the result of jealously or frustration in competitors who, despite all their concerted efforts, have failed to equal the performance of the newfound figurehead. It may be the case in some instances that it is out of a desire to determine with certainty whether the successes and efforts of the figurehead are for the benefit of the industry, and society at large.
Mr. Musk, your operations are in fact leading in not only one industry, but arguably three: automotive engineering, aeronautic engineering, and energy production (which I will discuss later). While you were not the pioneer in those industries, you have been the one to refine each, one by one, and the multitudes have been divided in reaction to your successes. Some say that you are a messianic figure, while others lambast you for being unable to make good on your optimistic promises, casting you in a negative light as a market opportunist whose strength is in marketing and advertising and not the science. As an admission I, as of yet, have neither the experience, access to resources, nor the scale of success you have (I won’t comment on relative wherewithal). How then, one might ask, is it that I find myself writing to give advice to a person such as yourself? What could an egotist, such as myself, have to offer? Perhaps everything, perhaps nothing. Perhaps I’m just stating the obvious, being intentionally brazen so that I can revel in how brilliantly obvious in my cogitations I can be, a la George Hotz meets Martin Shkreli. I’ll take this opportunity to say that I am neither a dedicated fanboy nor obsessed critic of your operations. Like others whose engineering acumen is limited to the occasional Wikipedia binge and quick Google search on the opinions that bloggers have regarding “your” technologies, I have opinions on how you could improve, and on how you should refocus the development of your past innovations. I’ll spare you the insight into just how ignorant and unsophisticated the discussions surrounding your operations can get, failing taking into account their scale and the regulations and limitations (scientific and otherwise) that inhibit their expansion. In other words, I’ll spare myself the embarrassment of attempting, and miserably failing, to demonstrate an intelligent understanding of the technical complexities of your operations. While my opinions on such topics might be really interesting in some Reddit feed, they are uninformed and irrelevant. In any case let’s talk about the science, at least the domain related to scientific advancement and discovery.
I’d imagine that when the pyramids were being built, the Egyptians searched far and wide to find the brightest scholars, engineers, mathematicians, master builders, etc. Perhaps they offered the most experienced of these expert collectives a contract if they were able to devise the most effective plan on how to get the project done. When moving the great boulders into position, the Egyptians had to find a technology to optimize the work, much in the way that you have to create the most efficient rockets for your planned solar-space exploration. I’d imagine, using the historical theory that the boulders for the pyramids were rolled on logs, that one guy came along and explained to the people that he’d cracked the engineering and design code. He probably figured out the right diameter log, the right kind of wood, the angling and distance placement between the logs, and the right ratio of sand, to oil, to water and salt needed to lubricate the ground in front of the logs so that the least amount of energy would be needed to roll the logs. Better yet, if his solution was used then the logs could be reused a few times in transportation. In this story the man and his collective go on reformulating, recalculating, and researching, all the while reaching critical acclaim and widespread praise. That is, until someone comes along and decides to do the preposterous thing of cutting the circular logs into segments, running a crossbar between two of them, and just like that you have a set of wheels. I think the direction that I’m going is pretty clear: rocket technology, no matter how “recyclable,” is like the logs. For those who know anything about launch windows and how rockets work, rockets are glorified, highly accurate slingshots. Do I know what the wheel equivalent to the rocket is? Is that why I’m writing? Have I finally figured “it” out by sheer force of will? No. Not exactly, but I have an idea, and it’s all about the energy source, about how research is focused and invested.
Jet propulsion was never intended on taking us to the stars, let alone anywhere beyond the moon’s orbit. We’d like to believe that it can be refined, but it’s akin to the the optimization of rolling and reusing logs. Okay, I’m stating the obvious: we need new technologies. It’s not a matter of improving one thing at a time, it’s a matter of changing many things at the same time. It’s not about first being able to recover the first stage of the rocket, then the second. It’s not being able to reuse one log and then surprising the roaring masses when you figure out how to reuse two logs at a time; this is where space technology is today. We need new propulsion and a new energy source all at the same time. We have the propulsion part figured out, to an extent, but it’s the energy factor that’s the big hangup. I’m sure that you, more than anybody, understand the limitations of energy production and storage, but a Gigafactory and SpaceX factory in every state and nation on earth would never address the ultimate issue of energy production at its core. Nuclear research is divisive, if not altogether unthinkable, but we need to invest seriously in energy development one way or another. We need to invest in technology such as fusion reactors and other forms of scalable energy production. But that’s not going to happen if two things don’t happen: 1.) we continue trying to roll logs, and 2.) we don’t have someone who stands up for this innovation the way you have done in fields where others called it impossible, that is until you went ahead and did it. I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll end with few questions:
You know the logistical limitations of modern technology more than anyone, so when will you invest in creating new technologies for the future, instead of polishing hollowed-out skeletons that can’t carry us much further than the recent past? We keep hearing that the future is now, but when is the future going to take place? What does it look like when you make it happen?
tldr; refining rocket technology is like trying to figure out how to more efficiently roll logs, at some point you need to make an engine and wheels.