I worry that at NASA’s creeping pace, with the emphasis on returning to the moon, Mars may be receding into the distance, said Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins in a 2009 press release. (Jacobs) Mars has been known as the best possible candidate for human colonization and exploration yet remains untouched to this day. Many see Mars as a possible “second Earth” as the next step in human advancement. The path to get there, however, raises controversy today. Some believe that government agencies should be the sole entity in this field, while others believe private companies should lead the way.
The best method of advancing space development involves the cooperation of both government and private industry, with each providing essential benefits that the other cannot. Today, this outlook seems radical, which will only hinder humanity’s future outside Earth’s orbit.
I have grown a keen interest and connection to the debate about commercialized space. It started when I heard about SpaceX through news headlines when they successfully landed their first rocket.
Just hearing that changed my entire perspective on space exploration. As far as I knew, this was never considered possible, much less feasible. Testing components for SpaceX at my work also drew my interest, particularly because it was to space specifications. This year, 2019, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which further heightened my interest.
Founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX leads the way for private space development. To this day, SpaceX does contract work for NASA, even bringing supplies to the International Space Station.
SpaceX’s recent success has led many to consider private, independent companies as an alternative to publicly funded agencies. Following SpaceX’s example, private entrepreneurs are also looking to start their own space projects, independent of NASA. While space exploration is inherently risky and vastly expensive, some see huge opportunity, especially if space becomes a commercial industry, akin to today’s air travel.
Traditionally, space has been thought of as governmental domain. Amidst the Cold War, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at an all-time high. The Soviets launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, ignited the “Space Race”; a period of competitive space development between the two nations. With a huge influx of government funding, America responded by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, in 1958. At the peak of the Space Race, the world witnessed as NASA’s Apollo 11 mission put the first human on the moon in 1969. More than 20 years later, NASA’s Discovery shuttle launched the Hubble Space Telescope, a valuable research tool still in use today. (Opposing Viewpoints)
Since then, however, NASA’s productivity has declined, as well as receiving significant budget cuts with the lessening priority of national prestige as during the Space Race. Despite this, private companies began to see the need for space development as entered an industry dominated by government agencies. One of these private space companies, SpaceX, began to make headlines with its successful launch and landing of its Falcon Heavy rocket in February of 2018. Falcon Heavy was unique in that its three boosters could launch a payload into space and land back on Earth for re-use. (Reagan) Such technology could drastically reduce the cost of spaceflight, causing many to see the opportunity in commercialized space activity.
Debate about companies in space continues today. Infobase discusses a general overview of the controversies of space exploration, as well as a brief history in their article “Issue Overview: Space Exploration.” In America, the space program seems too dependent on other nations, with president Trump enacting space policy with an “America first” attitude. (Issues & Controversies) The Gale company discusses the future of this emerging space industry in their article “Space Exploration” in context of the perspectives of both government agencies and private companies. Critics have pointed to NASA’s cost to taxpayers, as well as running overbudget and failing to meet deadlines. Part of this can be attributed to the lack of emphasis on expensive space programs as during the Cold War. (Opposing Viewpoints) As for privatization, investors and enthusiasts alike are turning their attention to independent, for-profit companies in hopes of achieving space advancement quicker than publicly funded organizations. The end goal of both NASA and SpaceX is virtually the same: continue to push humanity’s reach farther and farther beyond Earth and into space. Their difference lies in how they are funded: NASA by public taxes, and SpaceX by returning profit off investments.
The private space industry continues to prove its competence. As mentioned before, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket revolutionized the way space travel is thought of today. Unsurprisingly, space is very expensive, largely due to the one-use aspect of rockets. Falcon Heavy, however, consists of three reusable boosters; two of which have already successfully launched and landed. Reusable rockets could drastically reduce the high cost of space activities, which could create opportunities for space that were impossibly expensive before. One of these advancements could be affordable commercial space travel. Future Americans could board a rocket to vacation on Mars, just as one would fly to Hawaii today.
Part of the pathos behind the argument for commercial space can be seen in National Geographic’s documentary Mars Inside SpaceX, produced by Julia Reagan. The film explores the inner workings of SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk leading up to the launch of Falcon Heavy, as well as a brief history leading up to the event. The film’s pathos, or appeal to emotion, creates a convincing argument in favor of SpaceX; one filled with optimism and hope.
This hope is encapsulated in Musk’s closing comment: witnessing the progress of space “gives a reason to live” (Reagan) While the film has inherent bias, with Musk himself playing a part in the production of the film, its argument of pathos proves convincing to many, especially those unfamiliar with SpaceX.
While some may argue that commercial space is only a means for those who want to get rich quick, most supporters only want the betterment of space development. University of Minnesota professor David Valentine interprets some of his experiences at NewSpace conventions, where enthusiasts and investors alike discuss the future of privatized space industry in his paper “Exit Strategy”. During theses conventions, people with promising visions for space projects are given the chance to pitch their ideas to entrepreneurs and investors. What Valentine wound was a portion of those giving pitches, the idea of selling “never occurred to them”, and the only goal for them was to “escape Earth’s gravity.” (Valentine) Despite this, investors still see opportunity for viable profit, emphasizing its opportunity for those who can invest early. (Valentine) Companies such as SpaceX can capitalize on this potential by putting some of these ideas into action.
Due to the global implications of space, international cooperation proves to be of major concern. Of the many arguments against space commercialization, the idea that private companies will not cooperate with other nations in pursuit of pure profit arises often. Critics have expressed worries of privatized space increasing the wealth disparity between established and developing countries. (Opposing Viewpoints) This same nature, however, reveals the opposite to be true. The best interest of private companies will be to utilize cooperation with governments, largely due to profitability. It would be harder for emerging businesses to monopolize rather than build collaboration, as monopolizing would create resistance from competitors and government agencies.
Another common argument when discussing space industry involves deciding whether private or public entities are better suited for space. This claim seeks to pit one as fundamentally superior to the other, arguing that space should be solely occupied by one or the other. This way of thinking is both unrealistic and dangerous. Gbenga Oduntan, senior law lecturer at the University of Kent, examines the current legal framework in place for space companies in her paper “Aspects of the International Legal Regime”. In her paper, Oduntan emphasizes the heritage of mankind principle, which states that space is the domain of all mankind, and not of one company or nation. (Oduntan) Following this idea, space should be developed through the cooperation of both companies and governments.
In an interview, soon-to-be NASA astronaut and former SpaceX employee Robb Kulin explains his experience working for SpaceX and NASA. When questioned about the difference between the two employers, Kulin responded, “We have worked together a lot as teams it’s a great combination effort and a great team its hard to compare them.” (VideoFromSpace) This is how space ought to be viewed and hopefully built; through the combined effort of both businesses and nations.