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NASA is relying on SpaceX to transport astronauts to the space station, one sign of a growing role for the private sector in spaceflight. (credit: SpaceX)

The privatized frontier: the ethical implications and role of private companies in space exploration


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In recent years, private companies have taken on a larger role in the space exploration system. With lower costs and faster production times, they have displaced some functions of government space agencies. Though many have levied criticism against privatized space exploration, it also allows room for more altruistic actions by government space agencies and the benefits from increased space exploration as a whole. Thus, we should encourage this development, as the process is net ethical in the end. Especially if performed in conjunction with adequate government action on the topic, private space exploration can overcome possible shortcomings in its risky and capitalistic nature and ensure a positive contribution to the general public on Earth.

Critics contend that companies must answer to their shareholders and justify their profits. This contributes to a larger overall psyche that prioritizes cost and speed above all else, resulting in significantly increased risks

The implications of commercial space exploration have been thrust into the limelight with the successes and failures of billionaire Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. While private companies are not new to space exploration, their prominence in American space exploration efforts has increased rapidly in recent years, fueled by technological innovations, reductions in cost, and readily available funding from government and private sources.[1] In May 2020, SpaceX brought American astronauts to space from American soil for the first time in almost 10 years.[2] Recognizing the greatly reduced costs of space exploration in private companies, NASA’s budget has shifted to significantly relying on private companies.[3] However, private space companies are unique from government space agencies in the way they experience unique sets of market pressures that influence their decision-making process. Hence, the expansion of private control in the space sector turns into a multifaceted contestation of its ethicality.

The most obvious ethical concern is the loss of human life. Critics contend that companies must answer to their shareholders and justify their profits. This contributes to a larger overall psyche that prioritizes cost and speed above all else, resulting in significantly increased risks.[4] However, the possible increase in mishaps is largely overstated. Companies recognize the need for safety aboard their expeditions themselves.[5] After all, the potential backlash from a mishap could destroy the company’s reputation and significantly harm their prospects. According to Dr. Nayef Al-Rodhan, Head of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy’s Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme, “because there were no alternatives to government space programs, accidents were seen to some degree as par for the course… By comparison, private companies actually have a far more difficult set of issues to face in the case of a mishap. In a worst case scenario, a private company could make an easy scapegoat.” [6]

Another large ethical concern is the prominence capitalism may have in the future of private space exploration and the impacts thereof. The growth of private space companies in recent years has been closely intertwined with capitalism. Companies have largely focused on the most profitable projects, such as space travel and the business of space.[7] Many companies are funded by individual billionaires, such as dearMoon, SpaceX’s upcoming mission to the Moon.[8] Congress has also passed multiple acts for the purpose of reducing regulations on private space companies and securing private access to space. From this, many immediately jump to the conclusion that capitalism in space will recreate the same conditions in outer space that plague Earth today, especially with the increasing push to create a “space-for-space” economy, such as space tourism and new technologies to mine the Moon and asteroids. Critics, such as Jordan Pearson of VICE, believe that promises of “virtually unlimited resources” are only for the rich, and will perpetuate the growing wealth inequality that plagues the world today.[9]

However, others contend that just because private space exploration has some capitalist elements, it is by no means an embodiment of unrestricted capitalism. A healthy balance of restricted capitalism—for example, private space companies working through contracts with government agencies or independently under monitoring and regulation by national and international agreements—will avoid the pitfalls that capitalist colonialism faced down here on Earth. Even those who are generally against excessive government regulation should see the benefits of them in space. Lacking any consensus on definitions and rights in space will create undue competition between corporations as well as governments that will harm everyone rather than helping anyone. To create a conducive environment for new space-for-space exploration, one without confrontation but with protection for corporate astronauts, infrastructure, and other interests, governments must create key policies such as a framework for property rights on asteroids, the Moon, and Mars.[7,10]

hough there is no one set way governments will interact with companies, the consensus is that they must radically reimagine their main purpose as the role of private space exploration continues to grow.

Another key matter to note is restricted capitalism in space “could also be our salvation.”[11] Private space exploration could reap increased access to resources and other benefits that can be used to solve the very problems on Earth that critics of capitalism identify. Since governments offset some of their projects to private companies, government agencies can focus on altruistic projects that otherwise would not fit in the budget before and do not have the immediate commercial use that private companies look for. Scott Hubbard, an adjunct professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, discusses how “this strategy allows the space agency to continue ‘exploring the fringe where there really is no business case’” but still has important impacts on people down on Earth.[12]

Indeed, this idea is a particularly powerful one when considering the ideal future of private companies in space exploration. Though there is no one set way governments will interact with companies, the consensus is that they must radically reimagine their main purpose as the role of private space exploration continues to grow. As governments utilize services from private space companies, “[i]nstead of being bogged down by the routine application of old research, NASA can prioritize their limited budget to work more on research of other unknowns and development of new long-term space travel technologies.”[13] According to the Council on Foreign Relations, such technologies have far-reaching benefits on Earth as well. Past developments obviously include communications satellites, by themselves a massive benefit to society, but also “refinements in artificial hearts; improved mammograms; and laser eye surgery… thermoelectric coolers for microchips; high-temperature lubricants; and a means for mass-producing carbon nanotubes, a material with significant engineering potential; [and h]ousehold products.”[2] Agencies like NASA are the only actors able to pursue the next game-changing missions, “where the profit motive is not as evident and where the barriers to entry are still too high for the private sector to really make a compelling business case.”[8] These technologies have revolutionized millions, if not billions, of lives, demonstrating the remarkable benefits of space exploration. It follows then that it is net ethical to prioritize these benefits.

This report concludes that the private sector, indeed, has a prominent role to play in the future of space exploration. Further, though private space exploration does bring the potential of increased danger and the colonization of space, these concerns can be effectively mitigated. Namely, strong government frameworks—particularly international ones—will minimize possible sources of ethical violations and ensure an optimal private sector role in space. This also allows government agencies to complete significantly more difficult, innovative projects which have transformative benefits for life on Earth.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Ms. Denise Foster for her continued support and academic encouragement as well as Ms. Amanda Ashmead for her re-introducing him to the topic. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

References

  1. Simberg, R. (2017, August/September). “The surprisingly long history of private space exploration.” Reason Foundation. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  2. Markovich, S. J., Chatzky, A., and Siripurapu, A. (2021, February 23) “Space exploration and U.S. competitiveness.” Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved April 18, 2021. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  3. Sheetz, M. (2019, March 12). “NASA budget reveals even more reliance on private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.” CNBC. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  4. Chang, K. (2019, April 11). “Moon landing by Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft ends in crash.” The New York Times. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  5. Toman, M. (2020, June 16). “Space: The Next Great Market Opportunity, with Michael Toman.” Hosted by Kristin Hayes. Produced by Elizabeth Wason. Resources. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  6. Al-Rodhan, N. (2015, August 14). “The privatization of space: When things go wrong.” Geneva Cent. for Security Policy. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  7. Weinzierl, M., and Sarang, M. (2021, February 12). “The commercial space age is here.” Harvard Bus. Rev. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  8. Davenport, C. (2021, February 25). “As private companies erode government’s hold on space travel, NASA looks to open a new frontier.” The Washington Post. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  9. Pearson, J. (2019, May 10). “American capitalism is suffocating the endless possibilities of space.” VICE. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  10. Oduntan, G. (2016, September 12). “SpaceX explosion shows why we must slow down private space exploration until we rewrite law.” The Conversation. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  11. Spring, T. (2016, June 3). “A case for capitalism, in regards to space travel.” Medium. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  12. Salazar, D. E. (2018, October 12). “How will private space travel transform NASA’s next 60 years?” Space.com. Last accessed May 5, 2021.
  13. Shi, L. (2019, December 12). “The implications of the privatization of space exploration.” The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Last accessed May 5, 2021.

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