Elon Musk is un­fit to lead us into space

Orlando Sentinel - - Opinion - By David R. Wheeler

First he dis­missed con­cerns about the virus. Then he made an em­bar­rass­ing at­tempt to ride to the res­cue. Then he tried to defy his state’s safety mea­sures by or­der­ing his em­ploy­ees back to work. One way or an­other, it seems Elon Musk is de­ter­mined to “win” the pan­demic. This is wor­ri­some be­hav­ior for the man who may soon be lead­ing hu­man souls into space from the Kennedy Space Cen­ter.

When a tragedy un­folds, it’s easy to see who the heroes are. In our cur­rent one, it’s the doc­tors and nurses work­ing night­mar­ish shifts at the hos­pi­tal. It’s first re­spon­ders, delivery driv­ers, and restau­rant work­ers putting their health at risk to make sure our coun­try con­tin­ues to func­tion.

And it’s easy to see who our heroes

They’re the peo­ple who are putting the spot­light on them­selves. Musk, the icon­o­clas­tic en­tre­pre­neur and founder of Tesla and SpaceX, falls into the lat­ter cat­e­gory. At a time of col­lec­tive shared sac­ri­fice, Musk wants at­ten­tion — any way he can get it. This fact has se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for our col­lec­tive re­la­tion­ship with Musk just weeks be­fore SpaceX will take as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

In short, Musk’s reck­less van­ity could en­dan­ger hu­man lives.

Let’s re­view Musk’s re­sponse to the pan­demic. First, he wanted to show­case his bril­liant, de­tached, un­emo­tional skep­ti­cism: “The coro­n­avirus panic is dumb,” he tweeted on March 6.

When it be­came clear that the virus was go­ing to kill tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in the U.S., he wanted to be the hero by sup­ply­ing ven­ti­la­tors. So he “de­liv­ered” them. The only prob­lem? They weren’t re­ally ven­ti­la­tors. In­stead, there were com­mon home health de­vices known as bilevel pos­i­tive air­way pres­sure (BiPAP) and con­tin­u­ous pos­i­tive air­way pres­sure (CPAP) ma­chines that as­sist peo­ple with sleep ap­nea but pro­vide lit­tle (if any) ben­e­fit to those in need of a ven­ti­la­tor.

Rather than ad­mit a mis­take, Musk lashed out in defense of his do­na­tion. He ques­tioned the in­tegrity of me­dia out­lets that re­ported his short­com­ing by shar­ing posts from hos­pi­tals and pro­vid­ing a delivery list that ac­counts for only 197 units.

Even if you could find the rest of the units, they are ap­par­ently not the de­vices med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties need for Covid pa­tients. But the poor hos­pi­tals duped by his ven­ti­la­tor ploy seemed to want to avoid any of­fense, of­fer­ing oblique thanks for the “gifts.” No­body wants to of­fend a thin-skinned bil­lion­aire.

Most re­cently, Musk tried to order his Tesla em­ploy­ees back to work de­spite his state’s stay-at-home or­ders, be­fore ap­par­ently can­cel­ing those plans.

Like a child who needs con­tin­u­ous praise from their par­ents, even when their par­ents are tend­ing to an emer­gency, Musk needs the world’s un­in­ter­rupted at­ten­tion, no mat­ter how many peo­ple are dy­ing by the thou­sands from a scary new dis­ease.

Is this the per­son we want in charge of lead­ing as­tro­nauts into space?

Musk has a sto­ried his­tory of big prom­ises that failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize, in­clud­ing re­peated is­sues with the de­vel­op­ment, delivery and out­put of Tesla ve­hi­cles. He has mocked his in­vestors’ fears of fi­nan­cial trou­bles with jokes call­ing the com­pany bank­rupt and re­sponded to crit­i­cism of his pro­duc­tion fail­ures by ped­dling a rogue worker con­spir­acy. His com­ments about the com­pany have even landed him in hot wa­ter with the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion (SEC).

The same dis­par­ity be­tween stir­ring pub­lic procla­ma­tions and cold, hard re­al­ity ex­ists at SpaceX. Since suc­cess­fully su­ing to force the Air Force into hir­ing his firm, Musk has cost tax­pay­ers mil­lions of dol­lars and set back na­tional pri­or­i­ties with catas­tro­phes such as the in­cin­er­a­tion of In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS) cargo and the det­o­na­tion of SpaceX rock­ets loaded with gov­ern­ment equip­ment. As the pat­tern goes, Musk deflects re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Per­haps it’s the fact that Musk chooses sub­jects that in­voke a tit­il­lat­ing fu­tur­is­tic world in which the un­heard-of be­comes the norm. Or maybe he’s just that good of a show­man. But with lives on the line, stan­dards must be met pre­cisely. It’s be­yond time for pub­lic lead­ers to rise to the se­ri­ous­ness of their du­ties and de­mand that Musk do the same. If that’s not pos­si­ble, then the gov­ern­ment should re­think the scale and scope of its re­liance on this in­spir­ing but seem­ingly neg­li­gent vi­sion­ary.

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