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The billionaire space race - good or bad, for whom?

Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch on May 31st 2020 marked the end of a nearly 10 year gap in launches from U.S. soil. It was closely followed by the launches of the Blue Origin (June 2021) and the Virgin Galactic (July 2021). These feats are in themselves impressive, however the effects of such big, well-advertised, and most importantly, successful space flights on the future of science are even greater.

Until recently, the Cold War was the golden age of space exploration: two global powers pouring billions of dollars into science in an effort to “win” the space race and display their superiority over the enemy. One of the results of that power struggle: the launch of the space program in an accelerated time frame.

Right now we can see something similar happening. The key difference is, however, the modern space race is not between governments or political systems but billionaires. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are the three main contenders for control of an industry that is becoming increasingly popular, as humanity strives to expand its reach beyond Earth’s frontier. Despite objections which may be raised regarding the morality of letting private individuals partly control the colonization of space, the question this article aims to answer is whether the privatization of this industry is beneficial from an economic or scientific point of view, or perhaps both.

The main concern of the scientific community is the emergence of space tourism. Space exploration has never before been part of the private sector on such a massive scale, and the worry is that the environmental impact of tourist trips will be ignored in favor of market expansion and the bottom line. Although, the exact consequences of space tourism are not yet fully understood due to the early stages the industry find itself in, rough estimates already give rise to concern: “According to Dallas Kasaboski, principal analyst at the space consultancy Northern Sky Research, a single Virgin Galactic suborbital space tourism flight, lasting about an hour and a half, can generate as much pollution as a 10-hour trans-Atlantic flight.” [1]. This would mean that, ironically, in our resolve to reach other planets we would render our own planet increasingly unliveable. Thus, it seems that from a scientific point of view privatization of the space program is not desirable. However, this only holds true if one solely considers direct effects.

Space tourism also creates indirect effects, which are largely positive.

The first space race (1955-1975) had a significant impact on education. The 1957 Sputnik launch motivated the U.S. government to pass the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which was able to positively influence college attendance and thus expand the next generation of scientists: “The results were conspicuous: in 1960 there were 3.6 million students in college, and by 1970 there were 7.5 million. Many of them got their college education only because of the availability of NDEA loans” [2]. This took place in a society without social media, the world wide web or the guarantees of a STEM degree producing an individual whose skills were not only scientifically but also commercially valuable, for example graduates being able to find work in big corporations as compared to being confined to the public sector or publicly funded private sector. Thus, although we do not yet know the exact extent of the positive effects of these well publicized launches on the next generation of scientists and engineers, we can make a well-educated guess that their magnitude will far surpass that of the first space race.

Moreover, space tourism also positively affects the public side of the space industry, “Allowing private companies to handle routine orbital duties could free up NASA to focus on returning to the moon and going to Mars.” (William Watson, the Executive Director of the Space Frontier Foundation). This shows that businesses involved in space tourism, intentionally or not, free up the government to conduct groundbreaking and essential but non-profitable science. This can have impacts beyond the inner scientific community as space technology has been utilized by the public for decades: “Many medical advances are derived from space technologies, such as refinements in artificial hearts, improved mammograms, and laser eye surgery.” [3]

It is therefore evident that the increased privatization of the space program, even if not perfectly bereft of negative aspects, also has a positive influence on society. The Billionaire Space Race of the 21st Century appears to have positive impacts on both the economy – job creation and allowing for increased efficiency in government spending, as well as scientific progress – making non-profitable space exploration possible and inspiring a new generation of scientists.

By Alexandra Keller

The views stated in the above article are that of the author ALEXANDRA KELLER, not TEDxWarwick nor TED.

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