Elon Musk is a pretty exceptional individual: he was the founder of PayPal, which has transformed the financial services sector, was the founder of Tesla Motors, which is producing some of the most exciting motor vehicles in history and was the founder of SpaceX, which is the private sector space vehicle company that the US is now using to replace the Space Shuttle. All this and he is only 41.
SpaceX just released a video of their first successful docking with the International Space Station. It is worth watching just to highlight how an individual company can now do what once required the resources of an entire nation.
It is also worth watching to highlight how modest the progress has been in space since since Alan Shepherd became the first American to enter orbit 51 years ago. Looking back, the Mercury space programme was a stunning accomplishment: it barely made use of computers, took slightly over 2 years from approving the programme to getting Shepherd into orbit, required learning all the skills needed to enter orbit and used basic materials.
It has been argued that society today would be unable to replicate the Mercury missions in the time and in the budget set half a century ago. Modern red tape and health & safety standards would make it impossible. That is perhaps the reason why so much engineering talent has been squandered in the finance sector and on making fart apps for smartphones.
Elon Musk’s greatest contribution to society may be to make hard science and engineering not just compelling intellectually but also financially for those involved. This will encourage more of our smartest people to push the boundaries of what is possible.
That is good for all of us.