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Musk on Mars: Silicon Valley Disrupts the Universe

It only took the mega-entrepreneur and fume-drunk Delphic Oracle of innovation Elon Musk six years to win the favor of the federal government and use it to get into space. The turnaround is so fast one wonders if he didn’t just call an Uber.

Musk’s galactic start-up SpaceX launched in 2002 with the stated aim of colonizing Mars, a locale which as yet lacks a stable source of oxygen, let alone a formalized innovation district. Quartz reports that in 2006, thanks to a loophole in the government agency’s founding document, NASA invested in the start-up, gambling on its ability to undercut other providers of space flights through the magic of Silicon Valley-style vertical integration. In 2008 the company had its first satellite flight, for the Malaysian government. That year, NASA awarded the company $1.6 billion in flights to the International Space Station by 2016.

Mars is still a ways off. But Musk and SpaceX are leading a larger trend in which the government is moving the onus of managing its most experimental projects to privatized Silicon Valley-style start-ups and their founders’ foundations. Government agencies are bureaucratic, and by nature slow to act; they test and re-evaluate everything, every step of the way. Start-ups are the opposite—remember Facebook’s legendary motto of “move fast and break things”? We just have to hope Musk and company don’t break anything too important. This week brought another reminder of how dangerous a game this is.

The flow of private money into what used to be public causes doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. As the ongoing boom for vaporware social media companies starts to look like a bubble even for its star players—start-up valuations are “running a little warm,” venture capital’s evil genius Marc Andreessen said at a recent tech conference—investment money is starting to flood back into actual science.

The recipients of such largesse are trying to solve actual problems—like clean nuclear power (Transatomic), green pesticides (Vestaron), and reusable, suborbital space planes (Xcor Aerospace, a possible SpaceX competitor). Literally all of these propositions sound more useful than those of the start-ups being hyped today for billion-dollar valuations—like chatting, sharing lifestyle porn, and sending ephemeral photos. At least Apple makes actual objects, you know?

The reawakening interest of investors in hard-science businesses rather than vague “tech companies” is a welcome trend. But the addition of start-up ideologies of going lean, dodging roadblocks, and scaling fast feels stranger when it’s applied to life-threatening issues. The New York Times also reported recently on the boom of billionaire entrepreneurs starting philanthropic organizations to fund their pet causes, like environmental change, autism research, and defense of the planet against meteors (seriously).

This private funding is more likely to be imbalanced than public funding; it closely follows the whims of the entrepreneurial class, who, as with their apps and websites, tend to develop products for their economic peers rather than those who have less. The founder-philanthropists are increasingly taking on the role of innovation-seeking Medicis whose largesse is welcomed without question. But what happens to the unsexy problems that require slow growth rather than disruption?

While Musk’s SpaceX might provide a perfectly feasible, cheap way to get to space by bypassing the crust that built up around NASA and its contractors, we may not want the same process to happen with cancer treatments. It seems only a matter of time before those same tech entrepreneurs realize that pharmaceuticals are a really great industry that has lots of built-in friction! Unfortunately, the bureaucracy they’ll find there is actually necessary, despite the wishes of would-be disruptors.

If the military’s DARPA pioneered the Internet, it’s looking like the Internet will create the military’s next DARPA. But even as the government depends on Silicon Valley to fix what it can’t fix on its own, giving in to that aid means relying on venture capital like media companies rely on Facebook traffic. The only issues to be solved will be the ones the market wants.

Not only is the government adopting the trappings and the posture of start-ups, but start-ups are actually starting to resemble the government, as well. Facebook’s motto was “move fast and break things,” but they’ve recently changed it, to the much less dynamic “move fast with stable infrastructure.” If this unholy convergence continues, we might well soon be calling up Uber ships to Mars colonies—colonies which will, of course, be composed of curvaceous, glistening white modules, each stamped with an Apple logo.