Reason Podcast

How Capitalism Will Get Us to Mars and Beyond: Podcast

A conversation with Mike Solana, a vice president at Peter Thiel's venture capital firm


Today's Reason Podcast conversation is with Michael Solana, a vice president at the venture capital firm Founders Fund. The firm, which is worth upwards of $3 billion, founded by Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder Luke Nosek, former PayPal CFO Ken Howery, and Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame.

Some of the fund's investments include SpaceX, Airbnb, Lyft, and Oculus, as well as variety of lesser-known companies in the realms of aerospace, biotechnology, energy, and internet technology.

I spoke with Michael about the future, which he thinks about a lot both as an investor in emerging technologies and as host of the official Founders Fund podcast Anatomy of Next, the latest season of which explores the ways technological advancements in rocketry, materials science, augmented reality, fertility science, and artificial intelligence will get humanity to Mars and beyond.

But Solana and his colleagues also believe that Silicon Valley is mired in groupthink and susceptible to the false promises of socialism. In this conversation, we talk about what Founders Fund is doing differently, why Solana believes capitalism is necessarily the engine of growth and innovation, the promise and perils of privatizing government functions, and what he's learned from the famously contrarian Peter Thiel about what it means to be an independent thinker.

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  1. I maintain that leaving earth behind to colonize elsewhere isn't something most wealthy people will do--just like it wasn't that way when colonists came to the New World. It was religious fanatics, indentured servants, slaves, people fleeing religious wars . . . hell, Georgia was prison colony. They used to sentence people to live in the New World. Why would you want to leave civilization behind if you were wealthy to go somewhere rife with disease, highly subject to crop failures, surrounded by hostile natives . . ?

    When I've lived in foreign countries, I quickly learned that hanging around with ex-pats was mostly a waste of time. There might be some newbie hikers, new people who'd been assigned to move there for work, students, etc., but mostly, it was people who had failed miserably back home--and had nothing to leave behind.

    That's who moves into space. People who have more to gain by spending their lives aboard a spacecraft going towards a destination their grandchildren may never live long enough to reach--because they have little or nothing to leave behind. This is actually an optimistic view. It means that we don't have to identify another earth like planet before we colonize the galaxy. We just have to build spaceships that offer a higher standard of living than what people get in Detroit.

    1. Yeah, but that makes for great Space Western fodder.

    2. Not nesessarily. Some rich people have an urge to explore. And some have an urge to conquer. Especially if it involves some asteroids rich in noble metals.

      1. Projecting which asteroids will be most suitable and easiest to mine will be a very lucrative industry, but that's never going to be cheaper than mining operations here on Sol III. Also, if it's flying to a desolate rock in cold, dead space with a high risk of death, they're going to pay people to do it. Rich folks don't just go into space without sending a team of space workers to lay the space infrastructure, and build the space Starbucks first. So, they conquer with their capital, rather than the cosmic conveyance of their physical avatar.

        ps - I just spit coffee on myself and the window I was looking out of (not a space window)

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  2. When capitalism gets us to Mars, we'll discover that socialists from Venezuela secretly beat us there a long time ago! Because their intentions are better than the intentions of the greedy capitalist, you see, who (greedy capitalists) put profits ahead of people...

    More seriously though, what (besides scientific information about some God-forsaken sands and rocks from a place far, far more hostile than the tip of Mnt. Everest) will the Martians have to offer to us? WHY should the Earthlings pay up for decades if not centuries, to fund the development of this? I'm sorry, but, "what's in it for me?" Mars dust isn't worth much... And I say this despite being a tech, science, space exploration fan...

    Snagging and mining asteroids sounds like a MUCH better bet!!!

    1. Well, I think a nice Martian colony could be self sustaining in pretty short order, especially with the kind of technology we're likely to have in a couple decades. So it mostly just provides more room for people to live. Hell, I'd go just to fucking do it. Why not? It would be cool to be one of the first generations to move to another world. And in truth, it could be pretty decent in short order. Plants, parks, etc etc etc could all be built inside domes/underground living spaces.

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  4. Why isn't Capitalism interested in colonizing the Earth's ocean floor? It's not as hostile as Mars or Jupiter, and it's a lot closer, and doesn't need tedious decade long space voyages to reach.

    1. ... It be happenin' as we speak, gonna go gangbusters one of these days... If the regulators allow it...

      Well OK, mining it, not living there... It's too expensive to live there! But the same is true of Mars, yes...


    3. In many ways the ocean floors are far more hostile than Mars*, it's just the trip time is much shorter.

      *in certain ways.

    4. The ocean is wet. People don't like to get wet. Also, cats seriously don't like to get wet, and people love their cats. So it's not really a realistic goal.

      Also, Mars is dry, and cats like it dry. But it's cold. That's OK since cats grow thicker fur in response to cold. It's possible we could send a ship full of cats, see how they do, monitor their meows, and then follow with a full colonisation mission. This was Von Braun's Feline Strategy and I believe Elon Musk--a devoted cat fancier and two-time World Paws Champion with his Burmese, Moonchild--favors it as an option, although he has dubbed it Meows to Mars, a rather whimsical term that have many asking, what is Elon smoking and where can I get some?

      1. "...what is Elon smoking and where can I get some?"

        That brings up my theory!!!

        Because Elon Musk smoked pot on TV, the NASA safety bureaucrats didn't approve of new space transport for humans. For lack of that new transport, Americans will no longer be able to go to the ISS and maintain it (USA contracts for Russian rocket rides are due to expire soon, and there's a 3-year lead time on new orders). So in early 2020, the ISS will crash into my house, and kill me, and the gravity-wave transvorbulator that I am secretly working on in my garage in my spare time, will be lost to science. For lack of the the gravity-wave transvorbulator, humans will NOT be able to fend off the near-Earth asteroid that will cream us all in 2032.
        It all started with Elon Musk smoking pot!!!

        The "Reefer madness" movie was correct; pot is the death of us all!!!!

        1. Mea culpa. I was being a bit of a tease when I asked what Elon was smoking and where can you get some.

          You can in fact get some at Green Giant's Marijuana and Cookie Emporium, corner of El Segundo and Prairie, Hawthorne, CA, although a guy that goes by the name of Nice Eddie hangs out in a shipping container--decorated by reclusive South LA street artist, ExWhyZee, with a motif inspired by Country Joe & The Fish's seminal (and still very sticky) album, Electric Music For the Mind and Body--a quarter mile east and will sell you the same shit for a third less. Also, his oatmeal cookies are muy, muy poderoso.

      2. Also, cats seriously don't like to get wet, and people love their cats. So it's not really a realistic goal."

        I think cats have always been on ships. The ship's cat 'Trim' was responsible for the first naming of Trim Bay, what is now known as Melbourne, if memory serves. For a cite, you can read that book on Sir John Franklin by that German guy. My memory only goes so far. The title escapes me.

        Speaking of ships, those scenes in movies where there is a pool table. It never happened. A three dimensional pool table on a space ship, that's something I can believe in.

        1. Ah, that would would explain why on my first visit to Melbourne as a coquettish young buck, when I asked where I could find some trim, I was directed to the waterfront.

  5. I find it hard to get interested in yet another person saying capitalism is good. That's like the Houston cop chief bragging how he didn't accept lies (except when he did before his lying cops were caught); supporting capitalism / free markets is a basic requirement of anyone who likes liberty. Tell me, does he also support breathing, eating, sleeping?

    1. He doesn't say it's good: he says it's the natural state of human beings. Since caveman days, when you worked for something, you wanted to see your effort rewarded. Either by directly benefiting you (example: you build a shelter and then sleep inside it) or through free trade (example: you make more stone tools than you need and start trading some of them for food). The opposite not only involves government taking from producers to benefit third parties who may not have made any effort and have nothing to trade, it inevitably leads to coercion and enslavement. Why? Because if you keep
      asking someone to produce not for themselves and their familiarity but collective, nameless others, they will slack off. And then you will need to force them to keep
      working. It's actually pretty simple.

      1. *for their families* (damn spell correct)

  6. Gasp! Those dirty capitalists will exploit those cute little green people!

  7. Currently it's a real race between technological innovation and state bureaucracies. Political action only matters to the extent that politics can slow innovation.

    People like Peter Thiel and Balaji Srinivasan not only know this but are actually pushing/funding the innovations that compete directly with state services.

    Although companies like SpaceX are getting most business from government this will change, especially with Bezos and Virgin Galactic focused on private services.

    There will be no revolution, no slow change to libertarian ideals, the state will slowly then quickly lose out to service competitors until people just stop using them altogether. Forget Minarchy, people will act in accordance with Anarcho-Capitalist philosophy even if they don't consciously adopt its precepts.

    Think of a world where arguments are about which arbitration company provides the best insurance package rather than political arguments about which sociopath should rule.

  8. "Think of a world where arguments are about which arbitration company provides the best insurance package rather than political arguments about which sociopath should rule."

    How is this an improvement? My talents, modest as they are, do not include the ability to decipher long technical documents. The EULA agreements that I'm occasionally asked to sign off on, just yesterday for Google's Android Studio, I have no patience for and have read no more than a couple of sentence. To have my future depend on mastering these documents and choosing the most advantageous for myself is nightmarish. A bright future for the lawyers among us, but if it were left to me, I'd pass.

    1. This is a deeply germane argument.

      Also thanks for the opportunity to use germane in a sentence, albeit a brutishly short one. I don't get to use it often enough and I think I'd do better in life if I did.

  9. Thank you for introducing us to this guy, Zach Weissmueller! I was intrigued enough to listen to a couple of his Anatomy of Next podcasts and now I'm hooked! This guy gets it and he presents ideas in an exciting way. You ought to get him to contribute articles to Reason sometimes.

    1. Zach is the great-grandson of Olympic swimming star and Tarzan actor, Johnny Weissmuller, and was named after Little Zachy, Weissmuller's pet Sumatran monkey, found stealing bananas from a food service truck (a beige 1940 Chevy pickup) on the MGM backlot during filming of Tarzan's Secret Treasure, 1941.

      NB: family name change from Weissmuller to Weissmueller was done by Zach's grandfather who felt the current name was not German enough.

      1. I myself am the grandson of another famed Tarzan actor, Ron Ely! I'm also third cousin to French actor Christopher Lambert, who starred in Greystoke?The Legend of Tarzan, not to mention Highlander.

        As a scion of the Ely clan, I will one day have to battle the descendant of the Weissmuellers. Because I believe that in the end, there can be only one!

        1. I don't care what anybody says... I like the Highlander franchise! Even the TV show! It wasn't the best, but pre-teen/teenage me liked it.

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  12. There will have to be something fantastically, phenomenally valuable on Mars to make it worth the expense to colonize. And who will the colonists be? In the American colonial and settlement periods, people went to the frontier to earn their own living by their own labor. You won't be able to do that on Mars; any colony there is going to be a massive labor camp, necessarily subject to the strictest possible regimentation, but probably also done on the cheap, as it will be run by private corporations trying to squeeze every dollar of profit they can out of the whole venture. Think of GI's being electrocuted in showers at Iraqi army bases due to cheap, shoddy electrical work done by Halliburton and its shadowy subcontractors, and you get the picture.

    1. I don't know that ANY of that happens to be accurate...

      People will go there JUST BECAUSE. It's what people do. People will be able to work for themselves... If domed/underground cities are built, they could be funded no differently than on earth with modest levels of taxation (or GOD FORBID some other free-er system, like fee for service), with people owning property within the city, owning businesses, etc.

      Unless there is some resource there that is hyper valuable Mars may not EXPORT much of anything... But it could easily become a self sustaining place with a decent standard of living. People would go there in droves just to be the first people to a new place. I would sign up RIGHT NOW if it was possible.

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  19. Getting on Mars is dream of human being. May be we could establish a colony there but still many challenges. How we can survive without oxygen there. we can't wear those artificial suits every time, what if i have to play football or need along run. Better stay where your are!

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