Many moons ago, the space sector was an exclusive playground for competing national governments. Now, in the 21st century, private companies–many in the developing world–are increasingly the ones with their fingers on the launch button. But the commercialization of space raises some uncomfortable questions about exactly where profit is going. How can we ensure that the benefits extend to those left behind back on Earth?
You’re no doubt familiar with the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin–founded by tech billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively–which demonstrate the key benefits that private enterprise can bring to the aeronautical industry. Progress happens fast through competition, and commercial entities are able to carve out their own paths without worrying about government-funding cuts every few years.
“Opening space up to commercial companies has led to significant technological advances and greater affordability for spaceflight,” said Sourabh Kaushal, an award-winning researcher from India who specializes in space innovation. “Space is no longer just for governments. The commercial space industry in booming.”
Until November 2015, it was widely accepted that nobody could own a part of outer space, based on a treaty signed in the 1960s. That certificate from your Uncle Roger claiming he bought you a star and named it something cute? I’m afraid it was bullshit. But new legislation has given private companies the go-ahead to pursue asteroid mining, which space lawyers argue is practically asteroid ownership.
Europe has followed America’s lead, subscribing to the idea that new legislation will encourage innovation from commercial outfits with extraterrestrial ambitions. “Both individual countries and Europe as a whole have recognized the importance of the space sector to consumers, business, and governments,” said Neil Fraser, head of space and communications at ViaSat UK.
Notably, Europe is adopting a more collaborative and cross-border approach than the United States, emphasizing private-public partnerships, along with government and EU investment to spur commercial space enterprise. “It’s unlikely that a single organization will produce a breakthrough on its own. True breakthroughs are likely to be via a combination of brilliant ideas and technology that all fit together in the right way,” Fraser explained.
Despite the introduction of new laws for the commercialization of spaceflight, the West may be losing its place as the world’s primary innovator in space exploration. Half of India’s satellite launches are already for U.S. customers, and Kaushal points out that there are lots of benefits to doing space business with countries like India–mainly due to cheaper resources and labor in the developing world.
“Indian space startups have the advantage of low production costs and will tap into lucrative overseas markets,” Kaushal said. “And a new generation of startups are entering the space race in other Asian countries, too, getting good support in terms of [private] investment.”
India’s Mangalyaan space probe entered orbit around Mars in 2014, setting two records in the process: India became the only nation to reach Mars on its first attempt, and the mission was significantly cheaper than all previous trips. Examples like this mark the country as a viable leader in moving the space sector forward, though much of its inspiration has so far come from the United States.
“SpaceX is setting a perfect and successful model for the private space industry. Many are trying to reconstruct the same feat in India at the moment,” Kaushal said. “And India’s space industry is certainly getting an additional boost and global attention after the successful launch of the Mars mission.”
It’s not just government-funded projects like Mangalyaan that are contributing to India’s role as an emerging space power. The country is brimming with privately run startups, too. Team Indus, run by Axiom Research Labs, is competing in the Google Lunar X Competition to land a robot on the Moon, while Space Development Nexus is working on small satellite systems and conducting research on reusable launch vehicles.
Meanwhile, in China, a government- and university-backed entity called Onespace plans to launch microsatellites and develop a launch vehicle, while Astroscale in Singapore–which recently raised $35 million in funding–is creating satellites designed to remove space debris from the Earth’s orbit. Developing countries are decisively entering the new space race.
The commercial potential in space is, of course, enormous. Just last month, an asteroid carrying around $5 trillion worth of platinum passed by the Earth. Mining, in particular, is expected to generate not only capital, but a new abundance of rare materials and coveted resources. Once an industry establishes itself, consumer-goods firms can expect cheaper production–particularly tech, which uses a lot of precious metals–and new sources of energy such as the much-hyped Helium 3. And that’s just the beginning.
One major issue is how to make sure that profits from space exploration filter down to the societies that helped make that innovation happen, rather than just being locked in the bank accounts of private firms and their shareholders. The majority of the world’s population is unlikely to ever experience life outside of Earth’s atmosphere, and unless regulation is introduced, ordinary Earthlings are at risk of gaining nothing more than TV news coverage from the fast-accelerating space industry.
One suggestion is the introduction of space taxes–an idea that has been gaining ground in discussions around the colonization of Mars. Adam Chodorow, a research scholar at Arizona State University, believes that regulating space travel through taxes will be pivotal as colonization plans become a reality. He says that U.S. citizens and U.S. companies will likely face taxation on their pursuits in space, but that incentives such as deductions and credits–staples of the U.S. tax system–will also feature.
Developing countries like India may be in the perfect position to take the lead on regulating space to benefit wider society, rather than just the private companies looking to profit. The rise of a new wave of space economies could see the emergence of a new road to accelerated national development here on Earth.
The whole concept of space regulation is still in its infancy, and in the years to come a generation of lawyers will be scratching their heads as they attempt to apply Earth law in space. We’ll need to develop totally new legislation to cope with the challenges and demands of a galaxy-exploring private sector.
But this is a golden opportunity. As humans emerge as an interplanetary species, it’s crucial that everyone gets a share in the prosperity space exploration brings. The privatization of space can mean access to awe-inspiring technology for a set of super-wealthy elites, or it can mean tangible benefits for a much larger proportion of the global population. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Above & Beyond section, which looks at our understanding of the universe beyond Earth. Click the logo to read more.