February 7, 2023

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The new space race could turn science fiction into reality

The last few years have been marked by trade wars and hot wars. This year could bring star wars as space – the “last economic frontier” – becomes the focus of a global race for dominance by both public and private actors.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, ViaSat, SES, OneWeb and more than 10,000 other commercial space companies have evolved over the last two decades into an emerging sector known as “New Space” dedicated to the dedicated to expanding private space access and space station services for satellite operations, defense technology, data analysis and even more speculative areas such as space tourism, manufacturing and asteroid mining.

SpaceX is the most prominent new space player that has launched thousands of satellites for both public and private use. Musk’s Starlink service has kept Ukraine’s internet running even as Russian forces shut down other telecommunications services. But it has also become a potential target for the Moscow military, even as Musk haggled with the Pentagon over the cost of keeping Ukrainians online.

This underscores a growing debate over who should control the space economy, which the nonprofit Space Foundation says will be worth $469 billion in 2021.

According to the Space Foundation’s 2022 Space Report, revenue in the commercial space sector grew 6.4 percent from 2020, with much of the growth driven by a 19 percent increase in government spending on military and civilian space programs (India’s spending rose 36 percent). percent, followed by China with 23 percent and 18 percent in the USA).

While space exploration used to be about government-sponsored programs focused on national security, national pride, and scientific research, after two fatal space shuttle accidents (Challenger 1986 and Columbia 2003), the US began to move away from the to withdraw centralized state control of space. This led to a 2004 Presidential Commission on US Space Exploration Policy concluding that “Nasa’s role need be limited only to those areas where there is irrefutable evidence that only the government can undertake the proposed activity “.

While public-private satellite programs had existed since the 1960s, the new generation of commercial space companies only began to take off when the Shuttle program ended (and was finally discontinued in 2011). Congress shifted the funding incentives and created a new policy (the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program) to encourage privatization. NASA and other government agencies became customers of private space companies rather than developers or even maintainers of new technologies.

As with any privatization, the aim was to reduce costs and increase innovation. Nasa data from 2014 shows that SpaceX was able to deliver 1kg of cargo to the International Space Station at about a third of the space shuttle’s price. Private flights now perform most of the space station supply missions and even transport some crew members.

But, as Harvard Business School professor Matthew Weinzierl has argued, as costs fell and innovation in the reuse of materials and equipment increased, monopoly power also increased. A handful of new space companies could draw on Nasa technologies that took decades to develop while the established contractors who helped build them lost. Taxpayers who funded basic research have no share in the wealth created by billionaires in space, the greatest public commons of all.

In many ways, this reflects the public-private power asymmetries seen in the 19th-century railroad fortune-building (which led to the last great breach of trust era in the US in the 1930s) or the commercialization of the internet, in which a handful of big tech companies benefited the most.

But the new space race is far more complex due to the scale and damage potential. Space debris – including malfunctioning satellites, spacecraft parts and the debris resulting from collisions between them – is becoming a major risk factor in space travel. But there is no consensus on who should pay, clean up or arbitrate for the consequences of collisions. The primary law governing space commons is still the Cold War-era Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which has little to say about modern space technologies. It simply prohibits launching nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction into space.

Optimists would argue that the potential gains from space commercialization will more than pay for garbage disposal, or that better regulation will naturally follow innovation. But it’s all too easy to imagine a series of sci-fi style catastrophes, from the creation of off-world colonies where the rich can escape this planet’s troubles (for a price) to evil billionaires the rare earth minerals hoard space. Amazingly, Weinzierl suggests, Luxembourg is already positioning itself as what Delaware is to US corporations trying to avoid taxes.

This is unacceptable. But addressing these and myriad other issues raised by the commercialization of space will require the kind of global collaboration currently lacking on Earth.

rana.foroohar@ft.com