June 21, 2003

By Bruce Gagnon

The news brings us the story of "space pioneers" launching privately funded craft into the heavens.  A special prize is offered to the first private aerospace corporation who can successfully take a pilot and a "space tourist" into orbit.
Is this "privatization" of space a good thing?  Is there any reason to be concerned about the trend?  Are there any serious questions that should be raised at this historic moment?
Three major issues come immediately to mind concerning space privatization.  Space as an environment, space law, and profit in space.
We've all probably heard about the growing problem of space junk where over 100,000 bits of debris are now tracked on the radar screens at NORAD in Colorado as they orbit the earth at 18,000 m.p.h.  Several space shuttles have been nicked by bits of debris in the past resulting in cracked windshields.  The International Space Station (ISS) recently was moved to a higher orbit because space junk was coming dangerously close.  Some space writers have predicted that the ISS will one day be destroyed by debris.
As we see a flurry of launches by private space corporations the chances of accidents, and thus more debris, becomes a serious reality to consider.  Very soon we will reach the point of no return, where space pollution will be so great that an orbiting minefield will have been created that hinders all access to space.  The time as certainly come for a global discussion about how we treat the sensitive environment called space before it is too late.
When the United Nations concluded the 1979 Moon Treaty the U.S. refused, and still does, to sign it.  One key reason is that the treaty outlaws military bases on it but also outlaws any nation, corporation, or individual from making land "claims" on the planetary body.  The 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty takes similar position in regard to all of the planetary bodies.  The U.N., realizing we needed to preempt potential conflict over "ownership" of the planetary bodies, made claim that the heavens were the province of all humankind.
As the privateers move into space, in addition to building space hotels and the like, they also want to claim ownership of the planets because they hope to mine the sky.  Gold has been discovered on asteroids, helium-3 on the moon, and magnesium, cobalt and uranium on Mars.  It was recently reported that the Haliburton Corporation is now working with NASA to develop new drilling capabilities to mine Mars.
One organization that seeks to rewrite space law is called United Societies in Space (USIS).  They state, "USIS provides legal and policy support for those who intend to go to space.  USIS encourages private property rights and investment. Space is the Free Market Frontier."  Check their web site at
The taxpayers, especially in the U.S. where NASA has been funded with taxpayer dollars since its inception, have paid billions of dollars in space technology research and development (R & D).  As the aerospace industry moves toward forcing privatization of space what they are really saying is that the technological base is now at the point where the government can get out of the way and lets private industry begin to make profit and control space.  Thus the idea that space is a "free market frontier." 
Of course this means that after the taxpayer paid all the R & D,  private industry now intends to gorge itself in profits.  One Republican Congressman from Southern California, an ally of the aerospace industry, has introduced legislation in Congress to make all space  profits "tax free".  In this vision the taxpayers won't see any return on our "collective investment."
So let's just imagine for a moment that this private sector  vision for space comes true.  Profitable mining on the moon and Mars.  Who would keep competitors from sneaking in and creating conflict over the new 21st century gold rush?  Who will be the space police?
In the Congressional study published in 1989 called Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years we get some inkling of the answer.  The forward of the book was signed by many politicians like former Sen. John Glenn (D-OH) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).  The author reported to Congress on the importance of military bases on the moon and suggested that with bases there the U.S. could control the pathway, or the "gravity well", between the Earth and the moon.  The author reported to Congress that "Armed forces might lie in wait at that location to hijack rival shipments on return."
Plans are now underway to make space the next "conflict zone" where corporations intend to control resources and maximize profit.  The so-called private "space pioneers" are the first step in this new direction.  And ultimately the taxpayers will be asked to pay the enormous cost incurred by creating a military space infrastructure that would control the "shipping lanes" on and off the planet Earth.
After Columbus returned to Spain with the news that he had discovered the "new world," Queen Isabella began the 100 year process to create the Spanish Armada to protect the new "interests and investments" around the world.  This helped create the global war system.
Privatization does not mean that the taxpayer won't be paying any more.  Privatization really means that profits will be privatized.  Privatization also means that existing international space legal structures will be destroyed in order to bend the law toward private profit.  Serious moral and ethical questions must be raised before another new "frontier" of conflict is created.

Home Page