The Privatization of Space

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the US approach to space flight has gone through some drastic changes in the last decade, with a notable trend toward privatization. The intent of this post is to briefly explore background and implications from an outsider’s perspective.

In the earliest days of space exploration, the initiative was a national imperative as part of race to remain competitive with our friends from the Cold War. At this time we probably only had hints of the full extent of what space flight would enable — things like communications, the global positioning system, and high altitude mapping and photography to name a few.

This all came to a head when President Kennedy announced the mission to put a man on the moon, an achievement that was incredible not only for the technical limitations of the time but also for the pace at which it was accomplished.

Eventually the types of missions changed from exploration and demonstration purposes to those slightly more mundane. With the advent of the shuttle program, NASA entered the business of basically long distance freight haulers (albeit slightly more complicated than that), thus having to balance a few very different imperatives: that of reliable space transportation, exploration, and advancing scientific progress.

Over time the number of nation state actors active in the arena increased as well, and so in order to keep balance between competition and cooperation initiatives like the International Space Station were rolled out.

The trends toward privatization in the space economy is a more recent development, and probably a positive one for purposes of balancing reliability with cost effectiveness. A public initiative may have some advantages in development of new technologies and expanding horizons such as lifted budget and profit constraints, but as the business of space transport has transitioned to one more mature and with more repetitive challenges, it does make sense to introduce some competition to ensure best practices are in use. As consumer technologies have caught up to those previously only available to nation states, this further opened the door to private companies’ participation.

Going forward, finding the right balance between public and private participation will be the next challenge. I would argue that the allocation of scope between these silos should be a function of both mission type and extent of automation in use. My expectation is that we are entering a period of increased replacement of manned space travel with automated systems. The benefits of unmanned space flight are many, including volume and weight considerations for launch, elimination of a host of life support challenges, and those health considerations that crop up for longer missions, with the benefits of manned space travel slowly being eroded as artificial intelligence systems become more capable. Those advantages are further eroded when you consider the possibility of manned intelligence taking place remotely as would be available in practically real time to those in near earth orbit.

Eventually we will reach a point where the automated systems advance far enough that the primary benefit of manned space flight will be those more noble callings of interplanetary colonization. It is this particular scope that I believe is most suited to remain fully managed in the public sphere, ideally following a multinational collaborative approach as was achieved with the International Space Station.

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