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Review: The Consequential Frontier

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The Consequential Frontier: Challenging the Privatization of Space
by Peter Ward
Melville House Publishing, 2019
hardcover, 224 pp.
ISBN 978-1-61219-800-2

As the decade of the 2010s comes to a close, it’s clear the commercial space activities played a leading role shaping what happened—or didn’t happen—over the last ten years. The rise of SpaceX is perhaps the biggest example, but many more companies have emerged and found varying degrees of success, from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to Planet and Spire. Yet, many of these companies have struggled to meet their schedules or other promises, with many failing outright, like last week’s bankruptcy filing by small launch vehicle developer Vector.

Ward makes a valiant effort to cover so much ground in less than 200 pages, but the effort, if intended to be a critical analysis, falls short.

The growth of commercial space activities, and the increasing reliance on them by US government agencies in particular, is a topic ripe for a critical examination. Journalist Peter Ward claims to offer that in The Consequential Frontier, whose subtitle is “Challenging the Privatization of Space.” Ultimately, though, the book is a flawed examination of the topic that does little to effectively review, or critique, commercial space activities.

Ward looks at the privatization of space in three parts. The first is a historical look at past efforts, from PanAmSat’s challenge to Intelsat’s monopoly over satellite communications in the 1980s to the false dawn of space tourism in the 1990s and 2000s. The second part examines some present-day issues in spaceflight and policy, as well as the rise of China as a major space power. The final section looks ahead to future commercial space issues, and problems, from space manufacturing and resource extraction to missions to Mars.

Ward makes a valiant effort to cover so much ground in less than 200 pages, but the effort, if intended to be a critical analysis, falls short. One problem is there are many minor, but glaring, factual errors in the text. He claims that the merger of Boeing’s and Lockheed Martin’s space units was finalized after the approval of the Federal Communications Commission; it was, in fact, the Federal Trade Commission, a very different organization, that signed off on the merger. Elsewhere, he notes an earlier incarnation of the National Space Council “had been disbanded in 1993 during George W. Bush’s presidency”; of course, Bill Clinton was the president in 1993 that shut down the council.

Other issues involve more fundamental analysis. “We first stepped out into the cosmos as explorers. We marched into the cold abyss of space in the name of science,” he writes in the books’ introduction. Science, of course, was a byproduct of the Cold War competition between the US and the USSR that fueled those initial steps into the cosmos. During a brief discussion of the proposed Space Force, he notes that Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), who advocated for a separate space service even before President Trump’s endorsement of it, received $38,500 in campaign contributions from the aerospace industry during his 2018 reelection, suggesting they were backing him in a bid to win more government funding for military space projects. Not mentioned is that $38,500 was a small fraction of the more than $520,000 he raised for reelection—itself just a fraction of what the average congressional campaign raised in that election cycle—and that his largest contributors were Vanderbilt University and Walmart. (There’s also the question of whether the Space Force will, in fact, prompt massive spending increases on national security space, rather than reorganize how that money is spent.)

One might think that, in a book “challenging” private space development, that key figures like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk would come under scrutiny, particularly given public sentiment against billionaires. Yet Ward seems pleased with Musk, particularly for SpaceX’s role in breaking up ULA’s government launch monopoly. Musk, he concludes, “despite his eccentricities, appears to truly want to get to Mars for the good of humanity, rather than his bank balance.” Bezos doesn’t do nearly as well: Ward argues that Bezos’ desire to move manufacturing off-planet is “apparently well-meaning,” but he’s concerned that having him “controlling a vast off-world economy is—and should be—terrifying.”

Musk, he concludes, “despite his eccentricities, appears to truly want to get to Mars for the good of humanity, rather than his bank balance.”

The book jacket for the hardcover version calls it “the first work of investigative reporting on the impact of private space exploration—and exploitation.” Yet there’s little in the book that one would truly consider “investigative” reporting. Ward relies heavily on news reports for much of his content, based on the book’s endnotes. He does have some original interviews, including some good insights from Aerospace Corporation’s Jim Vedda on policy and from Jeff Manber on his long history of commercial space efforts, from Energia to NanoRacks. Some others, though, involve people on the fringes, like those involved with Mars One.

There’s certainly many topics in the commercial space field worthy of deeper dives and investigative reporting, but you’ll find little of that in The Consequential Frontier, which is a high-level, and flawed, overview of the commercial space field. The role of commercial space will only continue to grow into the next decade, particularly with the long-delayed introduction of suborbital space tourism and commercial crew missions to the ISS in the next year (or so), as well as the rise of satellite megaconstellations. All are worth of scrutiny, but in an informed way.

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