New Race, New Space

Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, United States

 

After years of speculation and testing, SpaceX successfully conducted a test launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6th. The test showed off several key aspects of the private company’s work to make space flight more affordable. The Falcon Heavy represents a significant increase in payload capacity for what will be a vastly cheaper price than current competitors. The launch confirmed SpaceX’s ability to retrieve the boosters and showcased (in a rather impressive PR move) the ability to launch a payload to Mars orbit or beyond.

Following the successful test, CEO Elon Musk answered a variety of questions about the launch and future projects SpaceX has planned. While responding to a question about the future of the Falcon Heavy and its place within the aerospace industry, Mr. Musk made an interesting statement:

[I] think it’s going to open up a sense of possibility. I think it’s going to encourage other companies and countries to say, “Hey, if SpaceX, which is a commercial company, can do this” – and nobody paid for Falcon Heavy, it was paid for with internal funds – “then they could do it too.” So I think it’s going to encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights and say, “Hey, we can do bigger and better,” which is great. We want a new space race. Races are exciting1.

This is not the first time that a “new space race” has been referenced by Mr. Musk or others involved in the privatization of space exploration over the last decade. However, the launch of the Falcon Heavy represents an important milestone for SpaceX and the industry. Up to this point, SpaceX launches have been unmanned and payload sizes limited. The possibility of large-scale launches and manned missions for lower prices now has the chance to put pressure on competitors.

Beyond the physical costs and calculations involved in the statement made by Mr. Musk, there is another important detail for consideration. He specifically encourages companies and countries to be active in this race. This is important as it implies that companies and countries are competing for dominance in the extra-terrestrial arena, and that these companies are operating in a similar fashion as states. Private companies are legally restricted under the laws that govern outer space – most notably that all launches must be approved by the hosting state – but there is still much to debate about the power of a private entity once it has left the bounds of the planet.

Historically, companies have existed as entities within a state, sometimes influencing political directions, affecting development or connecting two states, but not generally bleeding into the bounds of statehood itself. One notable exception is the East India Trading Company during the colonial era. The Company chartered explorations, held land, levied taxes, passed laws, and operated its own armed forces – actions typically restricted to states. Now, companies are once again looking towards a new region, some with goals to establish human colonies whose governance is disputed and others that wish to gain access to the myriad resources that can be exploited.

These resources vary, from helium-3 on the moon – a possible fuel source for viable fusion reactors – to rare earth minerals in nearby asteroids – valuable tools in the development and construction of technology. Regardless of the goal, these companies wish to establish themselves in a place where domestic laws are limited, and international laws and treaties fail to offer answers. However, unlike the colonial holdings of past centuries, survival on a colony in space will be nearly impossible without considerable assistance from Earth. A fully autonomous colony would still be subject to the whims of its suppliers for key resources, especially because self-sufficiency is unlikely in the near future. This means that those who are beyond Earth’s jurisdiction will be reliant upon their sponsors for survival, while dealing with the competing internal interests of private entities..

Elon Musk envisions a near-future in which both companies and states are competing in space. Several public and private groups have taken an interest in space exploration and colonization, and even Russia has expressed renewed interest in getting to Mars recently. If what Mr. Musk suggests is true, then we need to begin considering how such a system will look. States have been the main actors in space for decades, but there has been little work done to flesh out new rules and norms in space. We know that WMDs aren’t allowed in space. We know that states can’t claim celestial bodies. But we don’t know if a private company is or should be allowed to claim resources or territory in space. If states don’t want to fall behind, then such questions need to be answered before companies get there and become entrenched. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was written at a time when humans had not walked on the moon, only the Americans and the Soviets had the ability to launch vehicles into space, and most ideas about how space might be used were limited to the imagination. Current domestic laws exist, but they neither answer every question nor solve conflicts that can arise when entities beyond that particular state’s jurisdiction are involved. Mr. Musk’s words should not only inspire countries and companies to engage in pushing the boundaries of space exploration, but also start a dialogue about what the rules for the next era of space exploration will look like.

 

1A full transcript of the news conference can be found at: https://expeditedtranscripts.com/full-transcript-news-conference-spacex-falcon-heavy-test-flight/