Will Corporations Dominate the Future of Space Travel?
The launch of the SpaceX Dragon has suggested that the future of space exploration rests squarely in the realm of the private sector and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, while NASA slowly contracts and shuts down. However, is the corporatization of space inherently preferable to the government militarization of the solar system?
The Space Review’s Martin Elvis has just posted the following long essay arguing for the aggressive economic exploitation of the solar system (after all, one asteroid carries about a $1 trillion value in raw material, not a small prize for even early and basic commercial expeditions):
Just over two hundred years ago an American president initiated a program of exploration that sent two men to the Pacific Ocean. Fifty years ago, another US president initiated a program of exploration that sent two men to the Sea of Tranquility. Fifty years after Lewis and Clark we had the California Gold Rush, and it was just another 16 years to the completion of the first transcontinental railroad with the Golden Spike. But fifty years after the start of the Apollo Program, the High Frontier of space is trailing far behind the pace of the frontier of the American West. Why the striking contrast?
From the beginning, the effective goal of the US space program was to dominate this new frontier against Soviet incursions. Despite the costs, it worked. Until recently, whether by accident or design, it has suited the United States for space to be expensive. As long as no other country or regional bloc could rival US expenditures on space, US supremacy was assured by these high costs. Even after the Cold War, this has been the de facto US strategy for space. In this sense, we are still living in the Apollo era of space policy.
What should our “After Apollo” space policy be? Perhaps no new US response is needed. Our pride may be hurt, but realism suggests that space really doesn’t matter. After all, space is a small industry. In 2007, the entire global space industry, by its own Space Foundation estimates (even including the GPS chips that are now common in cell phones), amounted to just two-thirds of Walmart’s annual turnover. Perhaps the US should simply ignore space.
Both the corporatization and militarization of space have been running tropes in science fiction, which quite often warns us against both. (Scottish author Iain M. Banks suggested a communist space future in his Culture novels; in the real world, the only group I’m aware of which has attempted a populist, anarchist approach is the legendary early-90s European anarchist collective the Association of Autonomous Astronauts.)
What do you think—what’s the sanest approach to best open the galactic frontier for everybody? Comment away…