Space Exploration – A New Role for Government?

By Joshua Nathan

A new era in space age is underway. The Roaring Twenties saw Robert Goddard begin the quest for space by launching the first liquid-fuelled rocket 41 feet into the air. A century later, NASA astronauts will return to the moon to establish a permanent lunar base. By the end of the decade Californian firm SpaceX will send an unmanned rocket to Mars, a predecessor for future manned missions to the Red Planet. Humanity is on the brink of becoming a multiplanetary species. But the quest Goddard started in 1926 risks becoming a political and economic problem.

In 2021 the space industry is poised to become privatised. NASA’s new Artemis program, which will bring the first woman to the lunar surface by 2024, should create the foundations for a market with existing capital and private contracts for firms to take advantage of. A functioning lunar base, in addition to Gateway, a NASA project to construct a space station that orbits the moon, will provide sufficient capital for private companies to begin operating beyond the bounds of Earth’s gravity. Entry barriers are extremely high in the sector because investment in space capital is so costly, requiring careful planning and rocket fuel to deliver it. But heavy government investment in space infrastructure throughout the decade will provide the much-needed capital that can be rented out to firms. Already, the International Space Station (ISS) is available for private enterprise, and NASA is now reliant on private companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing, to transport astronauts as well as cargo to the ISS. Unsurprisingly, this lowers average costs for the American space agency, which hopes the revenue earnt from its space capital can provide the additional funding needed to send astronauts to the Red Planet by the 2030’s.

The commercial possibilities of space can best be exploited through the private sector, not the public one. Government space agencies should therefore begin to limit their involvement over the coming years. Harvard economist Matthew Weinzierl explains in his 2018 paper “Space, the Final Economic Frontier” howdecentralisation away from NASA and towards a competitive market has already led to more innovation. Perhaps most evident of this is SpaceX, who have been successful in lowering the average cost of sending payloads into orbit through its revolutionary reusable launch system. The Californian aerospace company faces internal costs of approximately $60m to launch its Falcon-9 rocket, which is able to decelerate and land using its own propulsion system. Entrepreneurship is much needed in the industry that has long been criticised for using taxpayer’s money inefficiently. SpaceX believes launch prices in the $5-7 million range are possible this decade, which would reduce significant barriers to entry and further promote competition in the sector.

As companies like SpaceX continue to grow and dominate, politicians need to compromise on how space is regulated and what the role for governments should be. To promote more competition, space first needs to be depoliticized. Unilateral support for policies that encourage the industry to flourish are needed. When it comes to defining the laws of space, the UN has a rather vague Outer Space Treaty, ratified in the Cold War. It limits the use of all celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only, and prohibits any nation claiming sovereignty outside of Earth. As the space age approaches its next phase of exploration, it seems unavoidable that a new treaty is agreed; one that is clearer and more explicit on ownership rights; one that promotes competition and entrepreneurship.

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A more defined rulebook should begin by focusing on space junk. The current Outer Space Treaty assigns elusive responsibility for objects in orbit to countries that launched them. But without specifying any punishment for littering the exosphere, the system simply doesn’t work. There are currently 20,000 pieces of debris being tracked, and active satellites regularly use thrusters to avoid potential collisions. It is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem, where a collective resource is depleted as everyone acts in their own self-interest: to leave their disused satellites endlessly orbiting the Earth. One proposition is a deposit scheme, in which an agreed sum would be payed that is redeemable after satellites are deorbited. An alternative is to charge firms for occupying space in Earth’s orbit, like space real estate. Both systems would work better than a launch tax, which would do nothing to incentivise firms and governments to include deorbiting capabilities in satellites. Countries with space-launch facilities need to agree on a sensible new treaty that actively preserves the future of space exploration.

Secondly, clarity is needed on ownership rights outside of Earth’s orbit. The USA disrupted the status quo by passing a bill in 2015 legalising property rights on celestial bodies to whomever ‘gets there first’. This helped facilitate the growth of asteroid mining companies in America, leading other countries to follow in relaxing their legislation too (Weinzierl 2018). A coordinated approach would be better. Any unilateral treaty should ensure that resources on celestial bodies are being used sustainably and disputed claims of ownership between firms settled fairly. International bodies currently regulate the use of the Antarctic, where only scientific research is permitted. For the space economy to thrive, a laxer approach may be required, but one that nevertheless restricts the exploitation of resources outside of Earth. 

The developing space economy that is already growing in the wake of the new space age must be guided in the right direction. A new space treaty is desperately needed. In doing so, the new era of space exploration can avoid being marred with political and economic rifts. Robert Goddard would be ecstatic if he could see what the space industry has become today; governments should start acting to ensure that its development continues.

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Two falcon booster rockets landing in tandem

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