Science

The Commercial Space Age: Golden or Gilded?

Issue 14, Volume 113

By Aareeb Jamil 

Ever since we first began to understand celestial bodies, the desire to expand beyond our earthly confines has captured the human psyche. In the 20th century, new technology allowed engineers and scientists to move closer to this goal. The world bore witness as the USSR and the United States competed fiercely against each other to develop astronautical innovations, from the 1957 launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite to the 1969 Moon landing by the Apollo 11 crew. Today, a new chapter of space exploration is unfolding: the Commercial Space Age.

Space travel in the 20th century was exclusively conducted by governmental agencies and programs, such as the United States’ NASA and the USSR’s Soviet Space Program. Entrepreneurs have decided that the private sector should try its hand at space exploration. The lack of previous market involvement in the field presents an opportunity for unprecedented profits. Visions of a commercial space future include asteroid mining, space tourism, and space colonization. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have already become major players in the aerospace industry and are only growing with time. However, skeptics claim that due to various ethical concerns, the space sector should remain in the hands of the government. The debate among space enthusiasts attempts to answer whether or not the privatization of space is a prudent objective for the future.

The most significant benefit of space privatization is the rapid expansion of the space sector. Opening space exploration to the market increases the number of teams working on new projects, and competition between companies can expedite development in the field. This contrasts from traditional space exploration, wherein bureaucratic processes often slow down the rate of innovation by governmental agencies. Proponents of commercial space travel also point to risk tolerance as a reason for advancements in the space sector; companies are willing to take more risks than government agencies by integrating new strategies and technologies, which could potentially yield massive profits. Some companies have been very successful in their open-minded approach to risk. For example, SpaceX already makes up 60 percent of the global commercial launch market and is continuing to develop new spaceflight technologies. Governments avoid extreme risks because they could lead to severe losses. Public space agencies incur harsher backlash because they are more accountable to the people than private corporations are.

Furthermore, allowing private corporations to participate in space exploration takes the pressure off governments. Traditionally, public space agencies have solely been operated by national governments and funded by large sums of tax money. Committing more resources to space travel under this system would require significant changes to national budgets. Public spending is a controversial topic in itself, so this would be unlikely to succeed. Companies, on the other hand, can make developments in the space sector without relying entirely on taxpayers. For instance, NASA already uses SpaceX vehicles for their missions and is one of SpaceX’s largest clients. The time and money that SpaceX spends to conduct research and develop new technology are resources that NASA no longer has to expend.

In spite of the positive aspects of space privatization, a thorough analysis of its potential drawbacks must precede further exploration. The costs of privatization are mainly ethical issues. For example, private corporations are often noncompliant with safety protocols. Jeff Bezos, the founder and owner of Blue Origin, has faced criticism for unsatisfactory working conditions at Amazon, another company that he owns. Employees have been injured in accidents at numerous Amazon warehouses, where productivity is emphasized over safety. Such a lack of caution poses a great risk to human life in the space sector, where the slightest vehicle malfunction can result in death. In 1986, the infamous space shuttle Challenger suddenly disintegrated due to equipment failure mid-flight, taking the lives of all seven crew members. The possibility of tragedies like that of Challenger would be exacerbated by corporate negligence, an evident tendency of tycoons like Bezos. The ability of the motive of profit to corrupt astronautical research must be addressed, and the solution is accountability by way of government regulation and oversight by public agencies like NASA. It is necessary to set appropriate industry standards to prevent future disasters while also allowing innovation to flourish.

Ultimately, commercial space exploration is an opportunity that should be pursued with caution. Opening this sector to market forces could enhance human progress while reducing the economic and administrative stress on national governments, but it risks ethical issues including corporate negligence. The best option moving forward seems to be allowing space privatization while imposing legal regulations upon the private space sector. Space is a frontier that holds tremendous potential, but further exploration requires a nuanced conversation between researchers, policymakers, and private interests in order to ensure a safe future for our species.