The unintended consequences of privatising space
If the quest to become an interplanetary species becomes entirely propelled by profits, we risk losing sight of the values that make space exploration so important.
The forces driving human expansion into space are changing. For decades, the world’s most fearsome superpowers chose space as the battleground on which to fight for scientific superiority.
The United States and the USSR sprinted to the stars, spurred on by the nationalist bluster of the Cold War. Pride and paranoia fuelled the race, as two clashing political philosophies went head to head in a galactic face-off - the communist all-for-one spirit of the Soviets against the fearless frontier cowboys of the United States.
When the Cold War cooled, and later the Soviet Union collapsed, the two countries began to cooperate. The end of international competition in the cosmos failed to take space exploration to new levels, however, and something of a lull took hold of humanity’s ambitions in the wider Universe.
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- Who will be next to land on the Moon?
- Space mining: the new goldrush
Space enthusiasts often express a bitter regret that after the Moon landing in 1969, progress stalled. By now we were supposed to have bases on the lunar surface, hotels orbiting the Earth, and colonies on Mars. The reality has been a lot less inspiring.
Government-led agencies have achieved amazing things since the Moon landings, but none have captured the attention of the world in the same way. Some of those jaded space-lovers happened to be extremely wealthy and took it upon themselves to build a private space sector capable of re-energising the pursuit of our cosmic goals.
Now, these companies have taken up the baton, and the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and many other companies are looking to make up lost ground in the mission to explore and ultimately colonise the Solar System.
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This presents the world with an interesting question. If space is a clean slate, abundant with opportunity and a sense the species can “reset” its mistakes, is the private sector and capitalism the best driving force to take us there?
In 2009, when SpaceX celebrated its first successful launch, the company did something very simple that hadn’t been done before - it published its prices. This allowed a host of entrepreneurs to put together business plans and investment proposals which had real figures, and a clear path to profits. This was a landmark moment for the private space sector. Not only was the price to launch into space transparent, it was also dropping steadily.
There are many industries in space, most of which have been operating for decades already. The most prominent is the satellite sector, which has been launching great hunks of metal into lower Earth orbit ever since the success of Sputnik in 1960.
Boosted by cheaper launch prices and new microsatellite technology which has seen devices shrink to the size of a loaf of bread, companies are now launching more and more satellites into space, and that has consequences. The small area of space around our planet is becoming quite crowded, and the potential for damaging and expensive collisions has increased.
This is just one area where the private sector is gaining ground and making a large impact. Space tourism - a concept only enjoyed by seven people so far - is about to make a resurgence, led by Virgin Galactic.
And as the International Space Station approaches the end of its lifespan, it seems inevitable a private company will either take over operation of the most expensive public project ever or will launch their own versions.
These are all activities relatively close to home, but they will have major repercussions - both good and bad - here on Earth. An increase in space tourism could spread the benefits of the overview effect, where astronauts see the world from outside its atmosphere, and appreciate its fragility and lack of borders. If more people were to view the world in such a way, the theory goes, they would appreciate the futility of war and the need to care more for a planet in dire need of better treatment.
When the European Space Agency launches a mission into space, Mark McCaughrean explains the hurdles they have to leap to finally get it off the ground
But space tourism companies need to make money, and it’s never going to be cheap to send anyone to space. In the worst-case scenario, the practice becomes another symptom of the world’s massive inequality problem, where the rich pay hundreds of thousands to go into space for a matter of minutes, while the millions on the surface struggle to feed themselves.
In the 1990s, the Russians attempted to privatise the Mir space station, but before business took off, they brought the craft crashing down to Earth as the nation cooperated with America on the ISS.
There are several companies now looking to establish the world’s first private space station. This would bring obvious benefits - it would open up space as a laboratory to anyone who could pay, and would theoretically bring down the costs of manufacturing in space.
But space isn’t the bastion of free-floating freedom some think it is, and it’s ripe for exploitation by monopolies. A space station operator, for example, could decide which fibre optics manufacturer could use its facility and which could not. The fibre optics produced in a zero-gravity environment are much cleaner and more valuable than that produced on Earth, meaning that one company would have a massive advantage, and the space station would decide who had access to the best manufacturing conditions.
That’s just one example of a potential monopoly, but if you go further into the future of space exploration, things only get more frightening.
Read reader Q&As about space:
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Imagine a colony on the Moon or Mars run by a corporation. That one company would control everything the colonists need to survive, from the water to the oxygen to the food. That’s a dangerous amount of power for any company, but it’s a very real scenario.
So what stops a major corporation landing on the Moon and setting up a colony? One very old document. The Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967 by all of the major space-faring nations, and explicitly states nobody can go to another planet or the Moon and claim that territory for their own.
It’s a very important document, but it’s flawed. For one thing, the private space sector wasn’t around when the treaty was written so it’s not clear how some of the rules would be applied to private companies. And secondly, given the ambitions of many countries and corporations, there’s no way it’s going to last much longer. Anyone with a plan to land on the Moon or Mars and stay there is going to run into the Outer Space Treaty, and the smart money is on the wealthy and powerful winning out against an old loophole-ridden document.
Politicians such as Ted Cruz in the United States have already called for changes to be made to the treaty, and given the increasing amounts of money private space companies spend on lobbying in the United States, more such attempts will follow. It’s imperative that the space community as a whole takes this issue on to ensure the needs of all, and not just the private sector, are taken into account should any alterations be made.
The further we look into the future of humans in space, the more reality resembles science fiction. That’s why it’s difficult to make people take the issues which could potentially arise seriously. But now is the time to consider the problems that could arise from a commercially-led space race, and take the necessary small steps now to avoid potentially disastrous consequences in the future.
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