The Commercialization of the Final Frontier

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There was a time in our history when space travel was a major part of American culture. The Space Race was a byproduct of the Cold War and was largely fueled by America's fear of communism, but it was also a time of unprecedented progress in the development of space technology. NASA's missions captured the imagination of the American people, and the country seemed to be united behind the idea of space exploration and discovery. Somehow, the American people lost their enthusiasm, and space exploration efforts have dwindled.

Now the question is, how do we revamp our space program? Many people believe the answer to this is commercialization. NASA has become increasingly focused on supporting commercial endeavors, authorizing $500 million over 2006-2010 to support the growth of the space industry.

Once of the main players in the space industry today is SpaceX, a corporation founded in June 2002 by Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal. SpaceX has been working closely with NASA, and in 2008 they were selected to provide the spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). The $1.6 billion contract represents a minimum of 12 flights with the option of additional missions, amounting to a potential cumulative total of $3.1 billion.

Recently, Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX and a Northwestern alumna, gave a talk at Northwestern about SpaceX and the future of space exploration. I attended the lecture and was very impressed at the progress that they've made in a relatively short amount of time. However, I could not shake off the feeling of unease at the thought of the commercialization of space.

I understand the logic behind the initiative. Turning to industry allows money to be accumulated from investors interested at the prospect of profit, rather than relying solely on government money, which is necessarily limited. In addition, people believe that injecting competition into the field will give incentives for finding cheaper, more reliable technologies. Still, I think that people are far too willing to accept this without thinking of the possible negative consequences.

Today more than ever we can see there is many times a distinct divergence between what is good for business and what is good for society and the people in it. The recent recession has its roots in the unrelenting, unchecked greed of corporate America, showing the dangers of deregulation. Thus, I think it is clear that government regulation on corporations must necessarily extend into the space market, but this is easier said than done. How effective will the government really be in governing space, particularly if it is private organizations that are driving the expansion in the first place?

The mission of space exploration and discovery is one of the most pure examples of human ingenuity and curiosity. Will it lose this purity if profit is added into the equation? Will we continue to explore space for the sake of scientific curiosity and progress, or will space turn into a tourist attraction for the very rich? The rhetoric is that commercialization will make space more affordable for everyone, and this may very well be true. However, resources are still limited and many scientific pursuits that would benefit from space travel, such as astrophysics and astrobiology, are generally not directly profitable. Thus, why would a company choose to spend resources on risky science experiments when they could spend it on more profitable endeavors such as, say, a tourist resort on the moon? I am simply skeptical that choices will continue to be made in the best interest of science if profit is the underlying goal.

I think there is an interesting parallel here between space and the American Old West. The western United States was at one point considered to be the “new frontier” of American civilization. While the government certainly played a role in the westward expansion, profit is what really drove people to move out west and develop the land there. The result was the complete exploitation of the land and people that populated it. Do we really want space to be another Old West? Do we really want another Manifest Destiny driving our exploration of space? I think these are all real fears that need to be put into consideration when addressing the future of the space program. I do not think we should be so quick to worship the wonders of commercialization. Space exploration should be a humanity-wide endeavor to learn, explore, and expand human civilization, and I am not convinced that commercialization will preserve this.

-blog by Michael Tremmel

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