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Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, celebrates after his suborbital spaceflight on New Shepard July 20. (credit: Blue Origin)

Criticism of space cowboys isn’t enough


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Anyone who has ever looked up at the night sky can attest to the mesmerising effect of space. Of being blinded by emptiness, by scale, by possibility. The desire to reach, and to understand, what lies beyond our planet is the closest thing to a universal human goal that we are ever likely to have.

Outside of the usual left-wing magazines, there is very little being done to grapple with the actual costs of the extensive privatization of space.

Unfortunately, as with almost every other human desire, we have something of a predilection to turn a blind eye to some of the worst consequences of attaining mastery of space. That’s why it’s encouraging to see a growing number of people begin to level criticism at the current trend towards the influence of individual wealth in the space industry. At this point, any criticism is welcome, whether it be clickbait outlets mocking the unusually phallic shape of Blue Origin’s New Shepard, or more in-depth analysis of the problems of leaving our access to space in the hands of a few eccentric billionaires, as in Layla Martin’s recent critique of “Space Cowboys” (see “The problem with space cowboys”, The Space Review, September 13, 2021).

However, as much as I enjoy these pieces, I can’t help but feel there is something missing. Outside of the usual left-wing magazines, there is very little being done to grapple with the actual costs of the extensive privatization of space. Martin, despite her understandable mistrust for the outwardly progressive rhetoric of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, goes out of her way to reaffirm her support of the private sector, pointing out that it “spurs innovation creating new jobs, substantial price cuts, and progress.” By doing so, Martin willingly glosses over many of the real issues which will appear should we allow private companies to monopolize space.

To pick an obvious example, Martin laments the lack of true equal access to space, contrasting the current state of the space race with the 1850s gold rush in California. She writes that:

In the California Gold Rush, anyone with grit and determination could pack up their wagon with the hopes to find gold. That possibility was open to everyone. Getting your hands dirty and working hard to achieve success is part of the American dream... if there were truly equal access to space, as it were in the American West, legitimate cowboys would blow these contenders out of the ring faster than a bucking bronc at the stockyards on a Friday night rodeo.

This is, putting it bluntly, a myth. The Californian gold rush, like all contemporary gold rushes, was far from an egalitarian paradise where anyone with a shovel could make a fortune. The vast majority of individual prospectors in 1850s California made little more than the average worker at the time, despite enduring incredible hardships. Those who made the real money from the gold rush were the merchants who charged predatory prices for prospecting supplies, and mining companies which set up large-scale ventures after the individual prospectors had identified fertile grounds.

Even worse, the Californian gold rush was famously detrimental to people of color. Prospectors were explicitly encouraged by the authorities to displace indigenous communities, leading to the genocide of native Californians. Hostility to foreigners led to an enormous tax being levied on non-white prospectors, and eventually the outright exclusion of Chinese workers. And, although California was nominally a “free” territory, slavery was common in the mining industry (see Robert F. Heizer’s The Destruction of California Indians.)

As easy as it is to make fun of “Space Cowboys,” we must go further and critically examine the underlying assumptions that are allowing billionaires to start carving up space for themselves. If we don’t, we run the risk of losing our chance of a fair and equitable future forever.

It would be very easy to write off these issues as anachronisms of the particular time, but history tells us that the discovery or availability of a new resource inevitably results in exploitation of both workers and the surrounding environment. There is no reason to expect that the private annexation of resources in space by commercial entities will turn out any different. In fact, Elon Musk has already begun talking of selling tickets to Mars contingent on future work contracts, and SpaceX has explicitly asserted that it won’t recognize international law in its space colonies.

It might be tempting to argue that the increased innovation offered by commercial space companies offers enough of an upside to justify some of these issues. However, it’s far from clear that such operations are actually interested in pushing the state of the space industry forward. For all of Musk’s rhetoric about colonies on Mars, or Bezos’s visions of permanently habitable space stations, very little has been shown to prove their words are worth counting on. Driven by the need to create profit for shareholders, commercial launch companies are feverishly filling up low Earth orbit with redundant communications satellites, and are increasingly pivoting to military contracts—hardly helping humanity reach the stars.

True, it’s hard to criticize progress, however incremental. The state of space exploration has undeniably stagnated since the 1980s, and the current increased interest in extra-planetary potential is, overall, a good thing. But when progress comes at a hefty price, we must not be afraid to push back. Space is the future of our species, and it belongs to all of us, not to a handful of private companies. As easy as it is to make fun of “Space Cowboys,” we must go further and critically examine the underlying assumptions that are allowing billionaires to start carving up space for themselves. If we don’t, we run the risk of losing our chance of a fair and equitable future forever.


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