It seems inevitable, but is it the right choice?
NASA’s Office of Audits released a report this week explaining the need for a commercial space station. The International Space Station (ISS) costs $3 billion a year, so the agency plans to offset this cost to private companies that can profit from the endeavour.
The ISS was initially set to retire in 2024, though the report claims it’s likely to be extended till 2030. NASA hopes that a commercial space station will be operation by 2028, allowing for a two-year overlap for a seamless transition between a public and a commercial station.
According to the report, such an overlap is necessary because “deep space human exploration missions depend on continuous access to a research laboratory in low Earth orbit”. The goal is to ensure the existence of a low earth laboratory isn’t dependent on the ISS to avoid interrupting necessary research.
Private companies have already expressed interest in building a commercial space station, with some set for completion as early as 2027.
This will allow for the overlap that NASA aims to achieve. Despite this, the agency’s report highlights commercialisation challenges due to issues such as limited market demand.
NASA’s report on building a commercial space station is released amid debates of whether space exploration should be private.
The race to space and beyond
The space station isn’t the only element of space travel facing privatisation. Billionaires including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are competing to commercialise the space industry.
Sky News compared it to the space race between the US and Russia during the Cold War, except that what’s at stake this time is “merely the ego of three billionaires”.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin
Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, aims to develop an industrial base in space. On 20 July 2021, Bezos flew into outer space with his brother Mark, an 18-year-old student, and an 82-year-old woman that completed astronaut training but couldn’t go to space because of her gender.
The ten-minute journey to outer space included three minutes where passengers experienced “near-weightlessness”.
After landing, Bezos thanked Amazon’s customers and staff for paying for his trip to space. His comment was criticised by those calling for better working conditions for staff and paying appropriate taxes.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic
Virgin Group’s founder, Richard Branson, aims to commercialise space tourism for wealthy customers looking to experience a trip beyond our planet. The billionaire flew into space himself on 11 July 2021, nine days before Jeff Bezos’ flight.
While the US Air Force and NASA define space as 80km above mean sea level, some, including the FAI and the US Department of Defence, classify it at 100km. Richard Branson’s company takes the lower boundary of that debate by flying to just 80km.
This limitation was criticised by Bezos’ Blue Origin, tweeting that “none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name”, adding that 96% of the population believe space starts at 100km.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX
Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, aims for humans to colonise Mars. He’s heavily invested in SpaceX over the past few years to work towards that goal. He also rallies up his Twitter followers to get them excited about living on Mars.
Musk once said that he’d like to die on Mars, followed by jokingly clarifying “just not on impact”. However, he’s the only one among the three billionaires not to travel into space.
SpaceX was responsible for the Inspiration4 mission, in which the entire crew was made up of civilians. NASA also used the company’s rockets to send its astronauts to the ISS.
Musk’s plans to colonise Mars have been criticised as highly optimistic, with some describing it as “impossible” and “a dangerous delusion”. Yet, the billionaire believes that our purpose comes from exploring the world outside our planet.
Critics of space commercialisation
The billionaire space race has received mixed responses amongst key figures and the general public.
A YouGov poll found Americans are divided on the topic, with approximately a third against commercialisation, a third in favour, and a third unsure.
US Senator Bernie Sanders heavily criticised the space race both on Twitter and in the Senate. In a recent speech, he said that “frankly, it is not acceptable…that the two wealthiest people in this country, Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos, take control of our space efforts to return to the moon”.
He added that “This is not something for two billionaires to be directing; this is something for the American people to be determining”.
UK’s Prince William also criticised the projects, explaining that “we need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live”.
While there’s truth in the criticism, there’s reason to support the movement too.
If commercialising aspects of space exploration and travel is bad, why is NASA keen on doing it?
The truth is, NASA doesn’t have the funding to achieve the ambitious goals it set out to reach. A 1997 poll found that Americans believe NASA uses up 20% of the US’ budget. The reality is that NASA only received 0.5-1% of it.
During the Cold War, the US government heavily funded NASA to put an American on the moon before the Soviets did. While many believed it to be the start of the country’s ambitions in space exploration, the reality is not pleasant.
It turns out the US government was heavily investing in NASA for political rather than humanitarian gains.
That’s not to underscore the US’ investments in space exploration. With $650 billion in funding so far and $22.5 billion more annually, the US has invested more into space than any other country.
However, with the last moon landing taking place decades ago, why shouldn’t private companies achieve what the government no longer wants to fund?
A 2018 study comparing the cost of a SpaceX rocket to a NASA one found that competition “has reduced the typical space launch cost by a factor of 20”.
Private companies can achieve more using less money thanks to economies of scale, competition, and increased efficiency. Additionally, generating profit from commercialisation will entice further development from existing companies and competition from new entrants into the market.
Think of how aeroplane tickets have significantly gone down in price thanks to increased competition and research from private companies. Many believe that space travel and exploration will undergo a similar pattern to regular flights.
Reallocation of resources
Robert Frost, an instructor and flight controller at NASA, explained how privatisation could benefit space exploration.
He points out that some aspects of space exploration are best done by public organisations, while others are best done by private ones.
He explained how space travel would get cheaper as more private companies enter the field and how this wouldn’t be possible if governmental entities just ran it.
While space travel becomes more accessible, companies can generate profit on their research, NASA will save money, and humans get to explore space. It’s a win situation for everyone.
However, he said, specific projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope don’t have a clear plan to generate any profits. Such endeavours push humanity forward but have no appeal to the private sector. Frost explains that it’s those projects that are best suited for NASA.
While there’s scepticism in opening up the doors of space to private companies, it seems like doing so would accelerate humanity’s reach into outer space. Are you in favour of commercialising space exploration, or should such projects only be done by governments? Let us know in the comments.