The massive explosion that tore apart SpaceX’s rocket on September 1, destroying their main launch center, has brought new attention to the dangers of the private space industry. Critics have long focused on the safety concerns of cost-cutting measures in a program which promises to lead manned trips to Mars.
Yet, while attention is focused on engineering risks, fewer criticisms have been made of the broader, unfolding process of privatizing space. There has been a rapid growth of the private space industry from luxury tourism to the grandiose plans of billionaires to forge solar system-spanning transportation mega-corporations.
What is at stake is far more than the risk of another disaster. What is at question is who will benefit from and who will have power over the most spectacular technological advances and engineering marvels which humanity has produced.
The wealthy tech elite has always shunned the kinds of audacious displays of wealth we see from the Donald Trumps of the world. Eccentric investments however are popular enough. Google co-founder Larry Page’s $100 million investment in flying cars would put Louis XVI to shame. It’s less obviously galling than a palatial estate, yet remains a symbol of the vast distance which separates the needs and struggles of humanity from the whims and desires of the ruling class.
When even high fashion can be imitated for cheap, the modern commodity par excellence for the rich is an experience. A vacation, travel, an adventure, exclusivity—these are the commodities which increasingly define class in terms which pretend to moral and intellectual superiority. Quit your job, travel the world, be a better person. Yet, tragically for the billionaire elite, many of these experiences are open to even the professional and managerial class. Enter Space Adventures, which for $50 million plus will make you an astronaut. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has its own plans, a long waiting list of wealthy clients despite having yet to complete a successful craft or mission. Space tourism figures into the business projections of both SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Rather than the scientific exploration of our solar system for the benefit of mankind, expect vast wealth powering the next generation of spacecraft to be put in service of getting amazing space selfies for the Rich Kids of Instagram.
Yet the most substantial transformation in recent years has been the move beyond dreamy projections of space tourism (often itself reliant on state-backed infrastructure) and towards the emergence of private corporations aiming to establish their own infrastructure. NASA recently released an extensive report on the Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit in which a clear vision for this transition was laid out: “As NASA begins moving astronauts out to the lunar vicinity, Mars, and beyond, the Agency will leave the further development of low Earth orbit to private sector companies. This has the potential to be a historic transition—from a government-run laboratory in orbit to an independent human spaceflight economy.”
This transition of course is not an automatic one and the entire report is dedicated to the challenges involved in making that happen. As it goes on to declare “First, the marketplace dynamics of supply and demand must exist. Second, the overwhelming reliance on government demand and public procurement must be transitioned to a market in which industry and other private sector demand is the primary market force, met by industry supply”
Capitalists by themselves have little taste for the ambitious long term planning and extensive risk that development in space, like any high investment technological breakthrough, entails. Having pushed many of the boundaries of space exploration marshalling vast public funds, the state is now setting in motion the processes to turn this collective scientific achievement into the private profits of a wealthy elite. The state will once again repeat the miracle of primitive accumulation, transforming the technological commons into the foundations of private capital accumulation.
The proposals range from general policy suggestions around encouraging venture capital to much more concrete and specific proposals in pharmaceutical and material sciences.
There has been a rapid expansion of VC interest in the area. Planetary Resources, a start-up with lofty the goal of mining asteroids, recently won $20 million in funding. It has perhaps the most ambitious goals of a number of recent start-ups aiming to expand the corporate presence in space with new satellites and launch projects. When Google purchased Skybox , a satellite imaging company, for half a billion dollars it set a price on previously unclear investments.
Yet the potential reaches far beyond satellite imaging. In particular, the report focuses on the use of the International Space Station as a laboratory for protein crystals and the advancement of pharmaceutical technology. As it explains “the uniqueness of a microgravity environment has abundant potential for the development of superior technologies… Early efforts have focused on conducting scientific experiments in areas such as protein crystallization, where the microgravity environment has enabled the production of larger and purer crystals. This, in turn, increases the efficiency of subsequent research into protein drug development.”
It goes on in more depth in a chapter dedicated to the subject: “Protein crystallization is an essential part of protein crystallography—the main process used in drug discovery today… The prospect of improving protein crystals through the use of the International Space Station has the potential to be the next great chapter in drug discovery history.”
The next great chapter in drug discovery history—discoveries to be made on an international space station financed by the public—will not work for the benefit of the public’s health. It is instead to be sold off to the Pfizers of the world, transformed into expensive private treatments that will provide a windfall for pharmaceutical and insurance corporations.
The biggest players in the private space industry aim for far more than a few satellites or a space station module. SpaceX and Blue Origin aim to dramatically reduce the cost of rocket delivery, controlling the infrastructure which makes delivery to space possible. Both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos undoubtedly want more than cool toys or experiences, they aim to reshape the world, perhaps even envisioning themselves as its billionaire saviors. Musk ultimately wants SpaceX to colonize Mars and Bezos envisions a future in which Earth has been zoned for residential use.
Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have focused their efforts on dramatically cutting the costs of entry into space. Both Musk and Bezos are famous for their vigorous commitment to fighting unions, the relentless pace they demand of their workforce at all levels, and their tremendous success in establishing a star status and cult following in the media and tech world.
Though it has made a turn towards profitability, SpaceX’s origin lies in an eccentric plan for technological philanthropy. It started with plans to send a rocket to Mars, initially conceived with the idea of shipping and retrieving a family of mice, or alternatively of creating a miniature oasis in an attempt to grow a plant on the Martian surface.
Having studied the area and being put off by costs, Musk decided that there was a business opportunity to undercut the price of rocket launches.
Cost-cutting innovations included for example, changing the seals on carwash valves to make them good for rocket fuel. A pump that Boeing might have estimated for $100 million was put together by a contractor in 13 months for less than a million.
What drives the company however are the workers—60 hour weeks are considered normal with many working far more than that. Weekends are rare.
Engineers aren’t paid exceptionally, especially considering the work conditions are far more taxing than a comparative position in the Defense or Aerospace industry. SpaceX relies on offering its own messianic vision to demand far more of its employees. Afterall, who doesn’t want to be part of a program to put mankind on Mars? Yet the power, the infrastructure, the technology which makes this possible will be controlled by private investors and not the workers who pour the best years of their lives into making such a project a reality.
Blue Origin has had a less public profile and is focused on shorter distance rocket launches. It aims to rapidly expand its presence in sub-orbital launches before embarking on more ambitious orbital launches and beyond. As the industry expands, it is set to be a major competitor to SpaceX and one backed by Bezos’ vast Amazon-based fortune.
The same hyper-exploitation of labor applies there (as it does throughout Amazon’s empire). On a Reddit AMA, a “group” of software engineers were asked how many hours they work and replied that “When you are passionate about what you do, time becomes relative.” In other words, it’s a lot more hours than the company’s PR department is comfortable with being known publically .
Libertarian Dream or Corporate Welfare?
The new private competitors certainly have cost and competitive advantages over NASA and the existing aerospace industry. Like the US defense industry, NASA’s entire system of development, production and deployment is confined and restricted by the demands of political patronage. In a corrupt system where defense jobs and contracts are divvied out to buy the votes and compliance of representatives, price and budget is certain to inflate to extortionate levels
Yet their competitive advantage is still one built within a field almost totally dependent on state funding. After the financial crisis of 2008 when investors pulled back across the board, SpaceX was narrowly saved from bankruptcy when it won a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. While Blue Origin plans to expand further into space tourism, for now the majority of what’s delivered are scientific experiments for micro-gravity environments—research financed by state-funded scientific grants.
The commercial success of both these companies would be unthinkable without the lucrative prospect of government contracts. Yet, should they succeed in their dream of building and controlling the infrastructure to reach space, they will have leveraged research and technology funded by taxes levied on working-class Americans into constructing perhaps the greatest oligopolies in human history.
In the era of the space race, it would have been unthinkable to imagine a private corporation rather than a nation-state being the first to land a man on Mars. The current schedule for SpaceX is to launch the first manned trips to Mars in 2024 , long before NASA’s still tentative plans for the 2030s.
Whether the project will go beyond that remains extraordinarily speculative. Profit-driven corporations don’t have a particularly stellar record at initial colonization efforts even in much less hostile environments. However, the valuation and boom of related companies shows that there is plenty of profit to be made controlling the infrastructure which links us to space.
While private capital plants its banner throughout the solar system, back on Earth the same contradictions driving us towards a social and environment precipice will continue and will only be accelerated.
A functional, orbital-space economy would almost certainly be a largely automated one. Human susceptibility to solar radiation and long term health challenges of living in a zero gravity environment means that a human presence can be more of a liability. Part of NASA’s own turn away from human exploration towards space probes was a recognition that, beyond the prestige of manned missions, robots are far more efficient for operating and researching in space.
If Bezos’s dream of an orbital-space economy supporting a residential earth becomes a reality, it would have to be largely driven by automation in a post-work society. Its realization is hardly compatible with a social system based on the relentless exploitation of human labor.
And on the dusty red plains of Mars? The goal there is not merely exploitation, but colonization and over an extraordinary distance. Most likely dynamic, off-the-cuff solutions from the very best scientists and engineers will be needed. Living there is the goal.
It is worth recalling that Marx ended his first volume of Capital not with a blistering call for the expropriation of the capitalists, but with a chapter discussing the challenges the British government faced in the exportation of capitalist social relations to Australia. One can easily export men and machinery, exporting modes of production is more difficult. A labor market needed to be artificially legislated into existence and independent production prevented.
On Mars there is no question of the possibility of an independent producer. Yet, neither can there be a labor market in the traditional sense. A barren survival climate where everyone will be needed and every resource recycled for common needs poses far different questions. There is the possibility for either a sort of high-tech primitive communism or for a capitalist dystopia in which finally, even the oxygen you breathe can be given a clear, quantified commodity value.
To Infinity and Beyond?
These projects do represent a familiar pattern of the private accumulation of technology funded by public resources. Yet the attempts to go beyond claiming public goods and reach further than NASA are the most ambitious capitalist projects in history.
The threat is obvious—the most powerful corporations ever existing operating beyond the reach of any law or regulation. Humanity’s future in space subject to the whimsie and will of one or two billionaires. Even the pretenses of democracy and statehood ending as soon as you step aboard the space shuttle.
The greatest success would still mean a civilization which can preserve life on other planets but still can’t stop millions of needless deaths on our own. More likely, precisely the technological advances making this possible will be provoking tremendous social and political upheaval at home.
While a backup plan to preserve humanity is prepared on Mars, market forces are hurtling us towards environmental and social catastrophe on Earth. We should learn to save life on our own planet before adding another. Taking back the wealth, power and resources expropriated by billionaires like Bezos and Musk would be an excellent first step.