by Al Timke
September 13, 2020
(Edited January 5, 2021)
Update: Clive Thompson’s article “Monetizing the Final Frontier” appeared in The New Republic on December 3, 2020. The second half of his article, especially, elaborates on the theme of this blog entry that exponential expansion of capital into space will necessarily bring with it an exponential increase in inequality and concentration of political power in a tiny elite of the ultra-wealthy unless we take steps to democratize national and world economic structures now.
NASA has recently solicited bids from U.S. and foreign companies to return a sample of soil from the moon. The project is a baby step in what can become an economic engine that would dwarf earth-based mining, extraction, and other industries in the future. (https://wapo.st/3isaZ2i)
All this lunar and other space-based resource development is to be covered by international treaties. NASA has already taken upon itself to write rules “… to ‘encourage International support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.’ (NASA unveils new rules to guide behavior in space and on the lunar surface.)”
In the U.S., NASA seems already to be being privatized with frequent launches by corporations like SpaceX. Like big drug companies, SpaceX and others have benefited from decades of groundbreaking research and development through NASA’s publically funded space programs. And now NASA has, established “‘… the legal precedent that private companies can collect and sell celestial materials (with the explicit blessing of NASA/U.S. gov),’ Casey Dreier, a senior space policy advisor at the Planetary Society wrote on Twitter.” (https://wapo.st/3isaZ2i)
As that trend continues, it would seem to lead to the virtually unlimited expansion of private capital in the form of natural resources from the moon, and asteroids. If all this seems like a fantasy, and not at all likely in the foreseeable future, this little clip illustrates the concept of mining asteroids. The “electric” rocket referred to is likely an ion propulsion system like ones already in use. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8XvQNt26KI) Since we would not have to relocate the moon to make it accessible, mining the moon would be substantially cheaper than mining asteroids, though still not economically feasible … yet.
With the prospect of space-based capital, of course, comes the corresponding political influence of “quintillionaires,” while the power base of the working people of the world is self-limiting. There are only so many people that our planet can support and the distribution of wealth is already dramatically skewed in favor of a miniscule minority of them.
Many countries are following the U.S. lead developing their own space-based economy, but also in creating their own Space Forces. Are we all just expanding the current world economy and military infrastructure into space?
It would seem more reasonable to limit the privatization and militarization now while we still can so that the possibly exponential growth of capital resources and political power in the future could accrue more equitably to all the inhabitants of this “pale blue dot,” rather than just the privileged few. Retain public ownership of the space-based means of production, and the resources developed. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Through treaties, expand that public to include all the people of planet Earth! That in itself could reduce the drive toward militarization of space and help close off yet another path toward human self-destruction.