Fly Me to The Moon: Space-onomics
by Luke Nearhood | published Feb. 8th, 2019
We are in the midst of a new space race. However, it's not a race between nations. Rather, it's corporations that are the figureheads of this space race, and they're fighting for technology and funding.
This new battle is full of colorful characters, such as the eccentric billionaire Elon Musk. Musk has agreed to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon along with a handful of others of Maezawa’s choosing. This public action has raised questions about space tourism and how far it will inspire public interest in space.
Hearts, Minds, and the Stars
Dr. Michael Richmond, RIT professor of physics and astronomy, and the director of the RIT Observatory, had the following to say about the possible interest in traveling in space.
“I guess if there was some sort of big adventure [there would be an interest in space tourism],” Richmond said.
He found, however, that space travel simply wasn't on the forefront of people's minds, especially as it would become commonplace.
“I don’t know that people these days would look at people going up and circling the Earth ... [as] doing anything new," Richmond continued. "[For example,] if you were to say, 'Oh, it’s the 1850s and we’re going to have tourists that go on a boat and sail around Australia and come home.' People would say, 'We’ve already been to Australia, what’s the point?'”
Though Maezawa’s lunar excursion is far from a trip around Australia, Richmond asserted that the cost would not be worth the trip for many people. To combat this, there has been discussion about bringing along artists and musicians as a way to incite interest among the populace.
“That’s the kind of human interest aspect that could be put into space tourism,” Richmond said. “But if it’s just people that go up and look out the windows, no [interest would be present]. [However,] if it’s people that go up and look out the windows and some famous musician composes a new song and it becomes a hit — you see that’s different.”
There has also been talk of space tourism for decades, as well as a few successful flights, but it has yet to capture the public imagination. With that, in addition to the prohibitive costs, space travel will likely remain in the domain of billionaires for the foreseeable future.
“If I have to spend 30 years income saved on a trip, I’d rather spend it traveling around Europe and seeing all the great capitals of the world in comfort ... rather than spending three days in a can. But someone who’s a billionaire might say, 'Oh I can do that anytime, anyone can go to Europe, I want to go to space,'” Richmond said.
However, from the perspective of a spaceflight company, space tourism is just another resource to be mined. The revenue from which could be put to furthering technological development.
The Economics: Public vs Private
“Firms have identified that there are additional natural resources that can be mined in space. There’s also increasing demand for tourism in outer space, starting in low-Earth orbit,” Dr. Jeffrey Wagner said, professor of economics at RIT.
The ability for private companies to make use of the resources of outer space, has the potential to act as a force for motivating the development of new technologies. Thereby, this encourages and facilitates space exploration, as the potential for profit outweighs the costs and risks.
“I think that it can certainly be a force for good, because the private sector has resources that the public sector does not have,” Wagner said. "So, firms make a lot of money perhaps, but also the people [public] all look at each other and say, 'Ah yeah, that's good for us.' I think that's where we are at the moment."
The issues posed by the increasing privatization of space travel, exploration and resource extraction, extend beyond the realm of technology. It starts moving more into economics and public policy, with concerns arising over the buildup of debris in low-Earth orbit, and who should be responsible for managing it.
“We don’t yet have [an] international environmental agreement on the order of controlling debris in low-Earth orbit,” Wagner said. “I would say the economic literature is not too optimistic on whether that could be achieved.”
The issue of orbital debris then raises the issue of property rights in space. If no one can own space, then why should those who use it be responsible for maintaining it. Conversely, if individuals and corporations are allowed to own property in space, then what does that mean for the future of outer space resource use? Such are the questions humanity will have to answer in the not so distant future.
“There’s not an infrastructure in place to my knowledge yet, that would enable us to govern markets and resource acquisition, pollution control and things like that in the outer space domain,” Wagner said.
Without any of this governmental infrastructure, space could easily become a frontier rife with exploitation and short sighted practices. Without accountability we won't know what the next environmental crisis might be. Ideally, companies should feel incentivized to be responsible and avoid being short sighted, to avoid the risk of damaging future developmental prospects. But, we have seen companies be very short sighted on Earth when it comes to natural resources.
“Even in the absence of an international agreement on cleaning up and preventing further degradation of the environment there ... [most companies] wouldn't find it to be optimal to do nothing,” Wagner said. “There’s a lot of expensive satellites up there with American registry, and surely those private companies that have that expensive capital up there are already doing 'what they can' ... to try keep those satellites operational.”
Furthermore, the economic exploitation of any frontier, whether physical or technological, carries with it the risk of monopolies developing.
As the space industry currently exists in the United States, nearly all actual spaceflight is conducted as contracts with NASA. Most development is done through programs like Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, which subsidize companies for the development of transportation services to the International Space Station. However, as more companies develop fully independent launch capabilities, it is then we will see just how market forces will impact the environment of space.
“The sustainability discussion ultimately needs to include, what are we gonna do ... off of the Earth,” Wagner said.
We stand at the precipice of a new space age. Decisions made today could have consequences for the future of humanity on and off the Earth for centuries to come. These decisions start in the hearts and minds of people swayed by the song of the stars.