How Far is Too Far
They are all ridiculously rich, and they have set their eyes to conquer space and beyond.
While Jeff Bezos is aiming for the moon, Elon Musk dreams of setting a colony on Mars. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will soon set its course for space expedition, and Yuri Milner, the Russian- Israeli billionaire, continues to build a roadmap for his interstellar project. The commercial space age is here, and this is only the beginning!
The space race has been a phenomenon of the past, starting from the early days of the 1950s. With WWII ending, the Americans and Soviets announced they would launch satellites in the orbit. The Soviets took a phenomenal lead with Sputnik 1, and America launched Explorer 1. The Soviet-Russians made another remarkable achievement — Yuri Gagarin. Three weeks later, Alan Shepard embarked on Freedom 7 to become the first American in space. Events followed, and the countries began hurtling towards the moon. On July 20, 1969, when the Eagle had finally landed, Neil Armstrong stepped outside to become the first man ever to walk on the moon.
In many ways, the legacy of the Cold War was not just about the global conflict. It also yielded the birth of the modern technological age. The very technology that today improves public safety and reduces the risk of accident and injury. To put in Neil’s words, that was -
“one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for (the) mankind.”
But the real question, however, is if the space race the same as space capitalism?
On the legislative front, in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by the UK, US, and the Soviet Union, attempted to establish the basis of the international space law. Today, over 100 countries are party to this treaty. The treaty, although ambiguous, explicitly prohibits the use of weapons of mass destruction. Articles in the treaty underscore that the moon and other celestial bodies can be used for space exploration and are not subject to “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.” The good thing is the treaty did lay out some ethical considerations. The bad thing though, it was ratified back in the 1960s, and space has witnessed a considerable amount of change since then.
In 2015, the US passed the Space Act, which clarified that citizens and companies can “engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources.” This act became a goldmine for the opportunists. Knowing this would happen in the future, the less developed nations formed a coalition called the Group of 77, which attempted to curtail the unequal benefits of space exploration received to the wealthiest nations. They believed in the fair distribution of profits derived from space-related resources. By doing so, organisations could help the less privileged nations, ease poverty, bring an economic order, and wealth would not be accumulated in the hands of the rich. Sure, it was dreaming big but offered an alternative.
Nations have been constantly trying for the democratic distribution of space revenue. To prevent total laissez-faire and complete autonomy, many even attempted to amend the space treaty. Despite the implications, developed nations and private corporations continued to trade temporary assurance (that of equal access to space) instead of offering a permanent solution (that of acknowledging democratic accountability).
This is not the era of space exploration; it is space barons battling for dominance over orbit. Such dominance, which will only widen the global inequality gap, and further intensify international political struggles. Just imagine the amount of money that will be poured into the bank accounts of these already established ultra-rich industrialists once they start privatising space! Not to forget, the vision of these space moguls already provides no mention of the working class, and this itself is alarming.
Space turning into a profitable industry is not entirely a bad thing. But instead of being driven by innovation and progress when the public sector takes a back seat, then there lies the real problem. Relying on private sectors, like Musk’s SpaceX or Bezos’s Blue Origin, will always have competing interests because shareholders and profits are of paramount importance to them than that of public interest. The balance between private and public investment in space exploration for a democratic, yet equitable distribution of space revenue is only possible if government investments increase significantly. Bringing in redistributive mechanisms, like establishing a sovereign wealth fund for the planet, could add a source of global basic income, and create an opportunity for advancement in various areas of education, clean energy, and public works programs.
Space should not be a place for conquest. Exploration that do not consider socio-economic implications are no good. Barons playing Gods are dangerous, and progress without ethics is no progress at all! Humanity can only be served well if social relations are transformed by gaining scientific knowledge and enhancing global cooperation, and not by marketing the idea of colonisation.