I wrote this essay for an assignment in high school in the year 2018. A lot has changed in the 3 years since I wrote this essay and it has been really interesting to see how things have played out. I believe that a lot of what I wrote is still relevant and while it scares the hell out of me to share my writing publicly, I’m still proud of it.
Thank you to Ms. Rao from Mallya Aditi International School for helping guide me and providing feedback on this essay.
Please note that this essay was written before SpaceX operated crewed missions to space.
Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union launched a small metal ball called Sputnik into orbit. The event served as the starting pistol in what would come to be known as the Space Race, a competition between the U.S.S.R. and the United States for spaceflight supremacy.
Both countries threw as much money as they could to prove that they had the more intelligent people.
In the decades that followed, the first human reached space, a man walked on the Moon, and the first space stations were built. The U.S.S.R. and the U.S. were soon joined by other world powers in exploring this final frontier, and by the time the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, the controversial Space Race was something of a distant memory.
However in recent years, the space race is making a sort of come back except instead of the governments of powerful nations, the race is being spearheaded by private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
This essay will focus on the benefits and pitfalls of a privately led space sector versus governmentally led space sector. The decision of whether privatisation should be encouraged will be based on criteria such as the cost of activities, benefit to humanity, feasibility of projects, public opinion, the safety of people and equipment, and future implications.
One of the largest advantages of privatising the space sector is the reduced costs of operations that come with it, more specifically in the reduction in costs of launching objects to space. A private company by nature has a primary focus on making profits and that requires companies to lower their costs as much as possible.
We can compare the costs of private companies and the government using the example of SpaceX and NASA. SpaceX and NASA are both US-based organizations that have created reusable launch vehicles.
NASA created the Space Shuttle and SpaceX created the Falcon 9 and Falcon heavy rockets. The Space Shuttle could launch 27,500Kg to LEO(low earth orbit) at an estimated cost of $450 million per launch while the Falcon 9 and Falcon heavy can launch 22,000Kg and 63,000Kg respectively to the same orbit at costs of $60 million and $90 million per launch.
However, it must be noted that the Space Shuttle was cleared for human spaceflight while SpaceX’s launch vehicles are not yet cleared.
Looking from an economic perspective it is clear that there is much to benefit from the privatisation of space launch vehicles. Today, countries such as the USA have realised this and have contracts with private companies such as SpaceX to launch payloads to the International space station and have also begun the process of awarding companies like Boeing and SpaceX to develop human-rated spacecraft in order to reduce the costs of sending astronauts to the space station.
Encouraging private companies to take over the responsibility of launching things to space frees up money for the government led organisations to work on things the private sector cannot support, but the people agree are beneficial to humanity. Robert Frost, an Instructor and Flight controller at NASA put it well by saying “When we send a spacecraft like New Horizons to take close up pictures of Pluto, we do so because, as a people, we understand that science is important. We understand that learning about the universe is good for our society. We understand that knowledge has value for its own sake and that we often cannot predict how that knowledge may have additional practical value at some later time. This kind of exploration simply isn’t practical for the private sector because there isn’t a way to, in the near term, make a return on the investment.”
Thus the privatisation of the space sector will ultimately have no losers and leaves government agencies free to pursue the kind of forward-thinking, longer-term research that might not immediately generate revenue, but that can be later streamlined and improved upon in the private sector.
Countries such as India have also realised this and have been pushing for the growth of the private space sector since the 1970s. Kiran Kumar, the chairman of ISRO(Indian Space Research Organisation) has said that this shift will allow ISRO to shift its efforts away from the mundane task of launching satellites and focus on research and development of spacecraft such as the chandrayaan and mangalyaan missions.
It can also be argued that the private sector will be more cautious than certain government agencies such as China’s. Due to poor planning of launch locations, during the afternoon of January 12th, 2018, a Chinese rocket booster landed dangerously close to a small town called Xiangdu in China.
Fortunately no one was hurt, however, the fuel that this booster used is called hydrazine which is extremely toxic to humans if it is inhaled or if it gets on someone’s skin and many people in the Chinese town were attracted to inspect this toxic rocket which would have led to serious side effects.
In 1996, a rocket launched from the same site strayed off course and crashed in a nearby town killing 6 people and injuring 57 others.
If a private company launched a rocket that resulted in such a scenario it would most likely be shut down, either by the government, public response or by a loss in faith by shareholders leading to drastic reduction in funding.
On the other hand, it is almost impossible for the people of China to stop or alter the program. The state-controlled press and the difficulty in organizing a protest against the government are both contributing factors.
Thus a privatised sector can lead to a safer space program. However, some companies may find it in its favour to cut corners in the area of safety in order to save costs which will increase the risk in each launch. This would be extremely risky for crewed launches and space tourism, nevertheless, this can be prevented by heavy inspection by government agencies.
The privatisation of the space industry holds a large amount of potential to create jobs and increase the strength of the economy.
It is impossible to predict the future exactly but it is reasonable to predict that a more affordable way of getting to space would create a low barrier to enter the space industry. This would create a rich ecosystem of companies that will compete with one another which in turn will force innovation and drive society and the human race forward.
There are a large number of opportunities for companies to make money such as space tourism, asteroid mining, government contracts, satellite launches, debris cleaning services, natural resources and more. Therefore it is inevitable that lower costs will definitely lead to a large rise in human activity in space leading to more jobs, more innovation and an overall benefit to mankind.
Once companies have the resources required, they can attempt to settle on worlds such as the Moon or Mars. Private companies such as SpaceX already have detailed plans to colonise Mars. The company argues that a self-sustaining colony on another planet ensures our survival as a species in the event of an extinction event such as a collision by a giant asteroid or a full-fledged nuclear war. This is vitally important and SpaceX’s advances is a testament to the capabilities of a private company in pushing a frontier which has always been pushed by government agencies.
Nonetheless, multiple legal issues arise from this concept of settling on other worlds. The 1979 outer space moon treaty says that no one can ever own any part of space but only 11 countries have signed it. However, 120 countries have signed and/or ratified the 1967 outer space treaty that says outer space is not subject to national appropriation. This means that most countries have agreed to not to claim parts of outer space, however, the treaty does not say anything about an individual or a private company owning or settling on the land.
With the legal statements currently present, multiple ethical issues also arise. For example, a private company with enough money could deface something like the surface of the moon by building obscene structures and they would still technically do nothing illegal.
A conversation must be had regarding the ambiguous nature of laws in space to make the private sector understand what is acceptable and what is not before it is too late.
Problems can also arise from increased human activity in space. A crowded playing field for private companies will increase the number of objects placed in space drastically.
After 70 years of activity in low earth orbit, there is a fair bit of debris present.
According to NASA, there are more than 20,000 pieces of space junk larger than a softball orbiting the Earth, 500,000 pieces the size of a marble and millions more that are too small to be tracked. Each one of these pieces is travelling at speeds of 27,500 km/h and at these velocities, even the smallest of them are capable of serious damage.
For instance, a number of space shuttle windows had to be replaced because of damage from space debris. After the material that caused the damage was analyzed, it was concluded that the materials were paint flecks. As Nicholas Johnson of NASA said “The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,”9
The chances of damage to spacecraft by orbital debris are already high and with a more crowded orbit, these chances will only grow.
A predictable scenario in such a situation is an execution of the Kessler syndrome, also known as collisional cascading. This is a scenario where the density of objects in low earth orbit will reach a point where collisions between objects cause a cascade where each collision generates space debris that further increases the likelihood of further collisions. One prediction from this is that the distribution of space junk in orbit could render space activities useless, effectively locking us down on Earth for a long time. It would simply be too dangerous for humans to leave the atmosphere.
The consequences also go further than access to space as the cascading collision of satellites will also affect life down on Earth by limiting globalization, undermining military intelligence and disrupting global communication. Services such as GPS will cease to function, satellite phones will not work anymore, and wireless internet in remote areas will also cease to be available.
Fortunately, the Kessler syndrome can be prevented and private companies have already started working on collecting space debris. NASA, ESA and other government space agencies created an infrastructure of tracking space junk. This allows private companies such as “Astroscale” to use their technology to attempt and clean up the inactive and hazardous objects floating out there by grabbing and deorbiting the object.
JAXA, the Japanese space agency is , in fact, working alongside Astroscale in order to solve this problem.
Before I started my research I held a strong opinion on the idea that the space sector should be privatised, however over the course of my research I came across concepts that made me realise that there are many complications that arise along with this shift in industry namely regarding the legal issues of settling on other worlds and concepts such as the Kessler syndrome that I had not thought about earlier.
Nevertheless, I still hold the belief that the privatisation of the space sector should be encouraged because in my eyes it is still a net benefit to humanity. The issues that arise with increased private activity are not very difficult to rectify and the benefits that come with privatisation is very significant.
I also believe that the privatisation of the space sector requires a symbiotic relationship between government agencies and private companies.
For further research, I would find it extremely valuable to understand the progress of privately made crewed spacecraft and their success or failure. It would also be valuable to find sources that explain the laws that apply to space exploration.
Additional notes and reflections: The essay above was written before SpaceX’s crewed missions and I’m really glad to see the success the company has had in those launches. It has also been made clear that future exploration of space will be done through partnerships between private companies and public organizations. Thus, I’m even more excited about private companies in the space industry now, but I’m also more concerned about the Kessler syndrome.
Companies such as SpaceX, Kepler Communications, Iridium and more are currently working on massive satellite constellations in low earth orbit. Additionally, the launch industry is becoming more competitive leading to lower costs to put something in orbit. This is largely a good think in most scenarios, but I do think that this means that the number of satellites in orbit will increase exponentially. The ecosystem in low earth orbit is extremely fragile and increasing the congestion increases the chances of a collision that could lead to a cascading collision.
To be clear, I am not against satellite constellations. I think the utility it provides to humanity in terms of worldwide internet access is extremely valuable and it has the potential to raise billions of people to a more prosperous world, especially when working in tandem with the rise of decentralized financial systems. I do think that not enough considerations have been made to prevent the Kessler syndrome. The problems of tracking space debris still exist, and there still is no way of removing space debris from orbit.
If humanity truly does value access to space, we must try and find ways to ensure the continuation of this access. I’m excited to see the progress AstroScale has made since I wrote my essay. The company recently launched a satellite to test a method of extracting a mock replica of space debris, but my fear is that it may not be enough. The removal of space junk is a difficult but extremely important engineering challenge, and we need to put in a lot more resources into finding a solution.
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