The Debate We Never Had: The Privatisation and Commercialisation of Space

By James Aisthorpe

On Wednesday SpaceX’s Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS).  This first operational resupply mission will be followed by 11 more as part of a $1.9 billion contract between Nasa and SpaceX and is being hailed as a milestone in the history of space exploration.  Indeed, this is only the second time a private space craft has visited the ISS, the first was when SpaceX conducted their test of the Dragon capsule in May in preparation for this most recent flight.

While this mission has gathered a great deal of media attention as a result of the role played by a private company, it is only the most recent manifestation of a paradigm that has been developing for some time – the commercialisation of space and the privatisation of space exploration.

The first commercial communications satellite, Telstar 1, was placed into orbit in 1962 and belonged primarily to AT&T.  As of July 2012 there are 197 commercial satellites in orbit, mainly being used for communications but some are devoted to navigation or technology development.

A contender for most media saturated space venture in recent times is of course space tourism.  There are several private companies developing technologies to take ordinary people (well, those who can afford it) into orbit, or at least pretty close.  The most notable among them is probably Virgin Galactic but there is also Blue Origin who are developing vertical take-off systems for sub-orbital flights or Interorbital Systems who intend to take up to six passengers on trips into lunar orbit.  Budding astrotourists may soon be spoilt for choice.

More ambitious commercial plans for space are also emerging.  In April a new company, Planetary Resources, with investors such as film director James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page, grabbed the media spotlight to explain their audacious plan to mine asteroids.  The raw minerals and water extracted from the asteroids could be used to set up refuelling stations for other spacecrafts at various points in the solar system while any precious metals found could be brought back to earth.  The company describes itself as having an honourable goal, to further our understanding of asteroids and accommodate human space exploration, and I do not doubt their sincerity but there can be no mistake that this is ultimately a capitalist project.

Space is no longer an arena monopolised by super-power governments.  As technology has advanced the cost of putting objects in space has fallen and opened space up to capitalist uses.

Space was always eventually going to be exploited for money making, but it seems that it is happening without anybody raising an eyebrow.  Space enthusiasts seem to be all for the privatisation of space, the late Neil Armstrong raised some objections but he is in a non-vocal minority. This is odd given capitalism’s record of environmental destruction and ignorance of social justice.

There is a framework of space law under which private companies as well as governments must operate but these laws are usually vague.  Moreover space law creates quite a paradox when it comes to capitalist exploitation of space and asteroid mining, in particular.

Capitalism is fundamentally reliant on the concept of private property.  To sell something you must own it and you must own land to farm it (or at least rent it).  Space law dictates, however, that nobody can own a part of space nor any celestial body or a part of it, including asteroids.

This causes two problems for Planetary Resources and future space capitalists more generally.  First, if you cannot own a piece of the asteroid, how can you sell the resources you mine from it?  More importantly, there is no reason another space craft owned by another company or government cannot come along and mine the asteroid that you have put so much time, effort and money into identifying, analysing and perhaps even changing its orbit to better accommodate a mining operation.

For capitalism to work in an arena where there are no private property rights, private companies are going to look for a different sort of advantage.  The most likely course of action would be to develop technology superior to any competitors and maintain a technology gap which prevents other companies benefiting from your achievements. Naturally this would require an element of secrecy.

To keep space technologies secret, however, would be to reject the whole ethos that underpins many concepts of what space exploration should be.  It is even enshrined in international law that space exploration should be for the benefit of all mankind and that space technology should be shared.

So we are face with a choice, some may say that all that needs changing is the legal framework; let’s allow companies to own land on the moon or mars, then capitalism will work.  In fact this is probably the path we will be lead down but there is a risk.

Rather than opening up the universe to mankind we may only be opening it to the richest.  Already some of our planets richest have visited the ISS, trips estimated to have cost around $30 million.  Rather than a Star Trek-esque universe of equality our planet could begin to look like the Earth as it is at the end of Carl Sagan’s novel ‘Contact’.  The upper class, thanks to their wealth and enticed by the potential health benefits, may become the orbiting class.

Even today the wealthiest, who are also often those with the most power, are out of touch with the rest of the world.  Hidden behind gates and complex alarm systems they rarely see the problems caused by the greedy policies they promote, through politics or the media.  Is it really sensible to allow those with the most power to become even more detached from the rest of us?

As it is now, our current system promotes inequality; the concentration of money among a minority.  To simply extend that system out to the rest of the solar system and announce a free for all would be a disaster.

The other option is to find new ways of doing things for space so we do not pollute it with the systems we use on Earth which are pulling societies apart.  The other option is, rather than relax space law, to tighten it to ensure it is preserved as a realm for use by all of mankind, to use our desire to explore space to catalyse social change we so badly need to see on Earth.

Private space exploration will undoubtedly push our technology to new heights but it poses a huge risk to global equality.  We will visit new planets and there is unimaginable wealth available in the solar system which humanity should harness.  But at the moment there is nobody steering the process down the right path, a path that promotes equality and the sharing of knowledge and punishes greed.  It is a debate we need to have now.  If we reach the point, where the 1% are living in orbit looking down on the rest of us, far tinier than ants then – that is it – any chance of any sort of equality, ever, is gone.

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