The privatisation of space

Credit: Official SpaceX Photos

Isobel Thomas-Horton

Isobel Thomas-Horton gives ethical consideration to the privatisation of space.

In 2011 Nasa created perhaps the highest stakes game of capture the flag in the history of mankind. An American flag was placed over the capsule hatch on the International Space Station and American companies were challenged to retrieve it. On 1 June 2020, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken did so for SpaceX, and the baton was symbolically passed from governmental space agencies to private companies.

It seems clear that private companies will be an integral part of the second space race, which has just begun. Right now more than a dozen private companies are developing or have developed space rockets. This increase comes from a number of factors. Primarily, space technology is cheaper than it has ever been. The costs are no longer prohibitive for those without the coffers of a nation behind them. The first pioneering steps of the space race were also profitable. It has been widely reported that for every dollar Nasa spent on the Apollo Space Program, they made $14 for the American government through scientific and technological breakthroughs. More important than any monetary gain, many of these inventions were huge steps forward in the medical field. Who knows how long it would have taken the private sector to develop the level of digital image processing necessary for creating MRI and CAT scans. The Apollo shuttle fuel pumps inspired an artificial heart pump, the left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which keeps people alive until a heart transplant can be found for them, and is being developed to act as a permanent solution. Nasa plant experiments have helped create technology which makes chemotherapy and stem cell transplants less painful. Imaging systems developed for the Hubble Telescope have been utilized to detect breast cancer, and insulating foam for shuttles has turned out to be a cheaper way to create artificial limbs. Outside of the medical field, thermal blankets, vacuum sealed food, fireproof material for firefighters uniforms, shock absorbing technology for both trainers and bridges, and advanced photography lenses have all made their way from Nasa to become part of our everyday lives. Detailing all the benefits from state-funded missions would take up not just this article, but the rest of the paper as well. It’s easy to see why so many companies are beginning to look up. As much as space exploration is often framed in terms of wide-eyed philanthropic optimism, there is a huge amount of money to be made among the stars.

The good news is that as of now, most aerospace companies are focused on the technology — making it cheaper, more powerful and more reliable. There is an increasing divide between these kinds of projects and the kind of research which created many of the inventions detailed above. In 1981 it cost Nasa $850,000 for every kilo they put into space. SpaceX currently charges less than $2000, and the Falcon Heavy looks to lower this to less than $1000 per kilo. That kind of cost efficiency is game-changing, and even with the technological advancements of the past forty years it’s difficult to imagine a state-owned company like Nasa being able to make those cuts. Between 2000-2018 government agencies have spent $7.2bn with 67 aerospace companies, and 93% of that money has gone to rocket launches. Private companies just do it cheaper than the ESA or Nasa ever could.

This frees up the increasingly limited man-power and cash of squeezed national and international space agencies to focus on research. While SpaceX may snap up patents for new space tech, there is still money to be made from the kinds of research astronauts will do in space, and this is only looking at the aerospace industry from an economic standpoint. The future of humanity may well be decided by the funding freed up by this task allocation. It allows scientists more time to study areas that look towards saving humanity rather than making them wealthy. Funding for climate satellites and the study of mass coronal ejections may not offer big cash returns but that doesn’t mean they’re not essential. 

Every year, space agencies spend $62bn. It’s been estimated that it would cost around $34bn to end global poverty. A shift of the financial burden to the private sector hardly means an end to the tireless work of governmental agencies. The glamour of space travel which was dimmed for so long has again been reignited, and though this new ‘face of space’ will be capitalist, not nationalist, the same quiet, tireless, vital work will continue to go on for space agencies behind the scenes.

Christopher Ketcham referred to ethics as the true “final frontier” of space. Watching the SpaceX shuttle move across the night sky, it’s easy to feel like it’s a frontier we’ve not adequately explored before diving in. Then again, humans aren’t well known for holding back for an ethical consensus before rushing into new worlds.

Space ethics is easy to dismiss as the realm of sci-fi classics like Star Trek or Ursula le Guin’s novels, but it’s likely to be one of the most important practical discussions of this century, and perhaps (if we survive the climate crisis), this millennium. Wherever in the past there was money to be made, companies sprung up to do exactly that. And there is money to be made in space. Asteroids of pure platinum, trillions of dollars worth, will be within the reach of enterprising aerospace companies within the next hundred years or so. Technically, according to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, no one can own a part of space, but human laws, unlike those of human nature, are easily broken.

It’s up to the country a business is incorporated in to ultimately determine what that company can do in space, but the power balance has changed since those heady Cold War days of national super-powers. When the treaty was ratified in 1967, the richest man in the world was J. Paul Getty, with a net worth somewhere between $1 and $1.5bn. In today’s money that would translate to around $9bn. By contrast, Jeff Bezos’ bank account comes in at over $105bn. He is richer than 125 of the world’s 195 nations. Countries also have to deal with the irritating problem of feeding and educating their populace, which individuals do not. The question then is if Bezos were to liquidate his assets and incorporate a space company in Malawi or Benin, how exactly are they to police his decisions? Are we to expect a Malawian Space Force?

Then there’s the question of space havens. Today there are nine major tax havens. These are countries which encourage businesses to incorporate there by offering incredibly low tax rates. What is to stop the Cayman Islands from branching out, and instituting lax space laws, perhaps putting no limit of the amount of space junk a company is allowed to produce? What is to stop America, come to that?

This is not a question for the future, but one we have to address now. Precedents are being set which will determine the future of mankind. There’s a real possibility that if allowed to continue unhindered, space will become the realm of private enterprise. When that means aerospace companies crashing the price of platinum, it’s difficult to care. But what happens when aerospace companies can control much of the supply of helium we use for MRI scanners? Usually more of a substance in a market causes the price to drop, but as we continue to use up valuable elements on earth, it becomes more and more likely that a well-timed space expedition could land a corporation a monopoly.

There are enough ethical questions around space to fill a book. If a mining company out in the asteroid belt fires someone, they can’t exactly go home and file for unemployment. Children born to lunar agriculturalists are unlikely to have a range of career options. Who is going to pay the wages of the Martian board of education, or health authority? Often sci-fi books present us with a dark corporate view of the future, where people only exist to produce profit, but history hardly fills us with hope for an alternative.


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