Space exploration is no longer solely the purview of governments. The last two decades have seen dozens of aerospace companies emerging with the goal of commercializing space—from transporting NASA cargo to space tourism to mining asteroids.
But with it comes a host of considerations: how much risk can businesses ask civilians to assume? Who should earn the spoils of extraterrestrial mining, products, and real estate? What role does government play in the new paradigm of space exploration?
On March 19, six noted space entrepreneurs and historians gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York with moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson to discuss those issues in the 2014 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, Selling Space.
Tyson, the astrophysicist best known as host of Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is also the director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium. (Asimov, who died in 1992, used the museum library to research many of his science and science fiction books. These annual debates covering a different topic each year are in his honor.)
The panelists included The Aerospace Corporation president and CEO Wanda Austin; Michael Gold, director of DC operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace; John Logsdon, professor emeritus of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University; Space Foundation CEO Elliot Pulham; Space Adventures president Tom Shelley; and Robert Walker, executive chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates.
The panel regarded the entrance of private companies into space as a way to pick up the slack from the reduction in government contracts and, in America’s case, bring back some of the launch and NASA cargo transport business that’s been outsourced to other countries. Many of these companies have found more expedient technology and cheaper ways of doing business than NASA.
"It may be better for the government to purchase some of these services than build their own," said Walker.
But companies need to identify ways to mitigate risk—particularly when it involves non-imperative and civilian-based activities like space tourism. Not just safer vehicles, but take-off and landing procedures, and collision avoidance.
"Like Gravity?" teased Tyson.
"'Lower cost' doesn’t mean 'less safe,'" said Gold. "There’s a misperception that commercial space is less safe, because we care more about money. But Robert Bigelow put $250 million of his own money into the company. I have my livelihood wrapped up in it. If we have a bad day, we lose everything."
"These are business people who do not want to lose money," added Pulham. "It’s not in their interest to blow anyone else up. They run airlines, trains, they know how to mitigate risk. But, as a society, how much risk are we willing to accept? We’re becoming more risk averse."
Then again, countered Logsdon, "Acceptance for higher risk is in the public sector. How many people don’t come back from climbing Everest?"
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prevents national appropriation of a moon or planet. But, the panelists argued, there should be some incentive for private companies to profit from their (rather expensive) efforts to settle space, whether it’s finding and mining rare elements on an asteroid or owning the products developed in a weightless environment.
"There’s the potential to create things in space that you can’t do on Earth, because of zero gravity," said Walker. "If you go to the space station to develop a product, you should be able to keep the rights to that product. That’s what attracts investors."
Gold pressed the need for next generation space habitats, as commercial complements to the limited space aboard the International Space Station, that could enable extended access for ongoing commercial enterprise and product experimentation.
Panelists believed the government's role should involve higher risk and loftier exploration, with commercial enterprise leveraging newly developed technology to other applications. Expanding space commerce is opening up opportunities for previously underrepresented groups in the space program, but America will need to shore up its science, technology, engineering, and math education and become more proactive if it is to inspire the next generation to stay competitive in this arena.
"The government has to go explore and settle, and entrepreneurs can follow," said Logsdon. "The initial costs and risks are too high and profits to low for initial exploration to be other than a government effort. I don’t think commercial space can serve as inspiration. The shuttle was supposed to routinize space, and it got boring, and lost its heroic effort. You need to go places."
"The government has to push the frontier, because of the expense, but there’s a place for economics to backfill," added Walker. "Investors can come in and use the technology that’s been developed to create other synergies."
There is one frontier that commercial space is already instrumental in penetrating: diversity.
"You can always tell who the new companies are—they’re the ones with women and racial diversity," said Gold. "Homogeneity leads to a dearth of ideas."
"There’s a shift from traditional white males," said Pulham, citing female heads of Space X and United Space Alliance as examples. "I’m seeing much more diversity being valued and coming up through the ranks, and a screaming cry for talent. We’re doing such a poor job in this country to inspire the next generation."
"American achievement (in space) has mainly been a response to the Russians saying or doing something," said Tyson. "We’ve been more reactive than proactive."
Check out the full debate here:
[Conceptual image of a space plane in Earth orbit on a tourist flight. Image: Victor Habbick via Shutterstock]