It was always only a matter of time before private companies got in on the space race. Taking over from NASA and other government entities as intrepid explorers of beyond our atmosphere, some pretty prominent voices have spoken up recently about conquering the cosmos. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk and his SpaceX program, have made rockets landing on Mars painted with a corporate logo an increasingly imminent reality.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing. The private sector should always be able to step in where government hasn’t and, given the decline of governments all across the world to find and fund new missions to space, the potential is there to go further than we ever have before.
But, as there aren’t really many rules governing the great unknown, and no one really seems to know who would enforce them if there were, who would stop private companies from going to war over it?
Taking over the galaxy
This is assuming that private companies/individuals find something worth fighting over, if gold was discovered on Mercury, for example (read more on space mining here: Space Mining Is Going To Accelerate The Military Space Race), as space exploration doesn’t offer much by way of riches. We know that long term domination of “the final frontier” would yield profit, sure; if we ever colonize Mars, being the first one there selling real estate with your logo stamped in the dust will surely be lucrative.
First, we should establish what regulations currently exists. The “Outer Space Treaty” (full name: The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) was established in 1967 after the Russians launched Sputnik I, and states:
- The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on for the benefit and in the interests of all mankind
- Outer space and celestial bodies are free for exploration and use by all States
- Outer space and celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation
- No Weapons of Mass Destruction are permitted in outer space
- The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes
- States shall be responsible for their national activities in outer space, whether carried on by governmental or non-governmental entities
- The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space shall require the authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State
- States shall retain jurisdiction and control over their space objects, and any personnel thereon
- States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects
- States shall avoid the harmful contamination of outer space
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has established other guidelines as well, concerning, among other things, the safe return of astronauts.
The “Moon Agreement” is perhaps most relevant here, meant to ensure that the moon and other celestial bodies are not used for anything but peaceful purposes. No setting up battle stations on the moon or any other planet in the solar system.
“We come in peace”
But it hasn’t been completely ratified by any major space power, i.e. the U.S. or Russia. So who knows. The vast unknown that is space is, at the moment, left relatively unchecked.
If you also noticed this small caveat in the treaty: WMDs are prohibited, but not conventional weapons. As the idea of weaponizing satellites has been around for decades (who can forget Ronald Reagan’s own ill-advised “Star Wars” program in the 80’s), it’s fairly likely there are more than a few floating around space with lasers on them.
From the Quartz article “Why exoatmospheric warzone is part of the outlook for space companies“:
“…two overriding trends that will determine the future of the private sector outside of earth: The level of international tension, which will determine the types of activities occurring outside of earth’s atmosphere, and the cost of putting stuff in space, which will determine how much of it is done… if spaceflight is cheap enough and tensions are high enough, conflicts will spread above the earth…”
In the report used in the article, from geo-strategic consulting firm WikiStrat, the prospect of an “exoatmospheric war zone” could quickly become a reality given the right combination of factors. The full report can be found here: The Private Space Industry 2050-2100.
But there’s still no reason to start wondering if your cushy job at Google might lead you to taking out employees of rival companies with a space blaster on the outer rings of Saturn. Not yet, at least. The idea that companies will fight space wars hinges on a lot of tech that has yet to even be built. It’s not even economically viable yet for “space tourism” which will probably be the first moneymaking enterprise to exist outside of our atmosphere.
And there are those who don’t believe that private space exploration will yield much in the long term anyway. Neil Degrasse Tyson, for one, believes the bottom line will keep companies from being the front runners of space exploration. In an interview with BGR he put it this way:
“The government is better suited to these kinds of investments… They have a longer time horizon. They’re not shackled to quarterly reports like you see in a private enterprise.”
Is this phenomenon of billionaires in space even a new thing?
Well, no. Dennis Hope already tried to lay claim to the moon back in 1980, stating he was the “…the omnipitant [sic] ruler of the lighted lunar surface.” In 2012, Sylvio Langevin went so far as to file a suit claiming to be the owner of all the planets in our solar system. But nothing came of either; neither Hope nor Langevin hadn’t even actually been up there to claim anything.
But things are different now. In terms of actual physical gains, yes, this is a very new thing. The success of the Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin rocket’s launch and safe return is a new thing, and the reusable rockets being developed by SpaceX are a new thing. Things in general are moving pretty quickly. These investors don’t seem to be having any trouble coming up with funds, so the bottom line doesn’t seem to matter much at the moment.
Getting past how kind of cool it would be to see a Jeff Bezos-powered army of spaceships colliding with an Elon Musk-powered army of spaceships, and the kind of light show we would get to watch from our backyards here on earth, if something were to go down there are provisions in the Moon Treaty stipulating private citizens and corporations are beholden to their country of origin. What would happen next, ostensibly, is the government gets involved: privatizing launch pads, restricting air space (“space space”?), and in general regulating space exploration by private companies through prosecution. There’s no real precedent, but expanding the boundaries of the Outer Space Treaty, and specifically the Moon Treaty portion, probably wouldn’t require more than one small step for man.
Still, there is no real precedent. No one is really sure who is in charge of space. As private companies continue to march forward into the abyss at an ever-quickening rate, it’s only a matter of time before these rules are going to need some real-world clarification.
There will be a new “Star Wars” movie every year probably until the earth implodes. We’ll see if those movies can stay more interesting than what’s really happening among the stars.