Contributing writer Matthew James Quill addresses the vast array of different risks that the privatisation of space poses and highlights the issues of class privilege which surround this.
“I’m escaping to the one place that hasn’t been corrupted by capitalism: SPACE!”, so echoes the voice of Premier Anatoly Cherdenko as he plans to leave Earth for the moon in one ending of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, the hit real time strategy game, starring Tim Curry as the charismatic communist villain. Well, I’ve got bad news Premier, because these days the fates of space travel and capitalism seem to be inextricably intertwined.
Current shenanigans regarding poorly running a certain social media platform aside, it’s undeniable that Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation has made waves in the space industry in the 20 years since it’s been founded, so much so that before it arriving on the scene, the very concept of a space industry was alien, if you’ll excuse the pun. Before SpaceX and similar companies such as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin arrived on the scene, spaceflight had largely been a government-funded venture, much of it founded on relict technology left over from the Cold War. While the motives for last centuries “Space Race” varied over time, it was largely borne out of a desire for ideological superiority, to prove that the capitalist West could beat the communist East in developing spaceflight technology, resulting in the West losing the race to space, but winning the race to the moon. After the military conflicts between the two superpowers of the time died down, space became a tenuously collaborative venture, with nations more willing to share technology and resources towards scientific goals such as the International Space Station, and beyond.
With the arrival of the private space industry, and increasing tensions between the East and West, that could all be set to change. While I’m sure Mr Musk would like to present SpaceX as a shining beacon for humanity’s future in the stars, the reality is that SpaceX is still a privately funded company that has to please shareholders to stay afloat, which it does primarily through contracts with the United States government. It’s no secret that NASA has been historically underfunded, with its $22.6 billion budget from 2020 making of 0.48% of the total US budget, and so they’ve turned to SpaceX and other such companies to further its goals, removing them from the equation when it comes to providing the rockets being launched, and the astronauts occupying them.
SpaceX doesn’t shy away from unscientific ventures either, having a $100 million contract with the US air force to deliver military cargo by rocket. Their relationship with the military industrial complex is becoming increasingly relevant, with the recent formation of the United States Space Force seemingly gearing towards a more militarised development space age. This is a particularly worrying trend considering recent geopolitical events in Eastern Europe, with the unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine ramping up tensions between the East and the West once more, to the point where Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos offhandedly implied dropping the ISS on America as a result of the conflict.
The long-term goal of SpaceX however, is loftier than simply being an orbital errand boy for agencies such as NASA, as they intend to colonise Mars, and perhaps eventually other planets. Planetary colonisation has long since been a goal of humanity, one which some now see as a “Plan B”, were the Earth to ever become uninhabitable due to any number of manmade disasters. The current scientific consensus surrounding this is somewhat cynical regarding how feasible this is in the next couple of decades, but even were it possible to colonise Mars today, there is an inherent issue with billionaire-funded ventures being the first ones to lay claim to Martian soil. Musk at once wants everyone to be able to go to Mars if they want, but is aware that not everyone would be able to afford such a luxury. His solution? Debt internment, whereby one would go to Mars on a loan and work it off until they’re freed of their financial obligations, which sounds a lot like indentured servitude. The dream of Musk and his ilk is not a spacefaring civilisation for everyone, but one for those who can afford it, with everyone else being left behind to choke in their dust, or be their slaves.
This follows a general trend with many of Musk’s projects, such as Neuralink, Tesla and Starlink, all seeking to develop luxury products such as brain machine interfaces, self-driving electric cars and global high-speed internet, all of which will likely remain out of the reach of the average person for quite some time. Starlink in particular is a subproject of SpaceX whereby satellite arrays encircle the Earth to provide internet access. Many concerns have been raised over these satellites further congesting the skies, leading to light pollution and a worsening “Kessler Syndrome”, a phenomenon whereby orbital debris continuously builds up to the point where it may begin to interfere with space launches and existing satellite infrastructure. there has been a growing general consensus that Elon Musk is mainly preoccupied with giving unfair and exclusive advantages to the upper class while excluding less privileged people.
It’s worth noting that the Outer Space Treaty put into place over half a century ago by major world superpowers, the parties to this treaty outlined that no one nation may lay claim to space and all its planetary bodies. While one of the motives for putting this treaty into place was to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in space, it still represents a clear commitment to keep space a neutral territory, one where we strive not to repeat the mistakes of our past when it comes to ownership of territory. The arrival of private space corporations threatens this treaty, as it’s only a matter of time before these companies expand to industries such as asteroid mining, space tourism, orbital manufacturing and other such concepts formerly restricted to science fiction. If the activities of these corporations aren’t strictly regulated, space may quickly be carved up by a select few companies with a de facto monopoly on trade, research and exploration. It is thus up to the governments of the world to ensure that space colonisation does not turn into space colonialism.