Capitalists in Space
Some field notes from a visit to the space business expo
The first space age was about politics.
The second space age was about science.
The third space age is about money.
While I knew it was an oversimplification, that single slide framed the impressions made by a day at SpaceCom in Houston, described by keynoter Stuart Martin of the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult as “the premier event on the calendar for those interested in the commercial exploitation of space.” I went as a writer and technology lawyer curious to see what sorts of unevenly distributed futures are showing up on the mission control board of the Zeitgeist, and walked away with a swag bag full of applied science fiction, a head crowded with glimpses at the coming sat-app explosion, and angst about the longer-term future being sketched out on the whiteboard as Anglo-American enterprise writes its flight plan for outer space.
SpaceCom wasn’t crassly commercial. More like the opposite. Business models coupled with a sense of public purpose are increasingly common in 21st century tech, and evidently native to the private space scene. The entrepreneurs and engineers founding the new space innovation I heard all grounded their pitches in a sense of planetary idealism, focusing on commercially funded applications as the most viable means to fund a better future.
Some of the rhetoric was just sci-fi boosterism, like the municipal managers rebranding regional aviation terminals as interstellar launchpads — “Houston, We Have a Spaceport” (and so do Midland, Harlingen, Jacksonville, southern New Mexico, and a half-dozen others). But the core programming was dominated by the long view business plans of pragmatic utopians, like the management team of Made In Space — Silicon Valley-based graduates of Singularity University earnestly working to achieve human colonization of the stars and make money along the way — in their case, through 3D printing as the cornerstone of “offworld manufacturing.”
The day after I heard Made In Space’s president talk about how they are bootstrapping our way to the stars with a “virtuous cycle” of government contracts that incidentally generate lucrative terrestrial applications (e.g., deploying space station-ready 3D printers as remote manufacturing stations for Lowe’s hardware stores) and thereby fund more research, the company announced NASA’s selection of Made In Space’s Archinaut system to assemble large and complex systems in space using additive manufacturing, aggregation and assembly — without the need for spacewalking construction workers. Hearing of a public-private partnership to take the first real steps towards orbital construction — instead of the “camping trip model” of spacecraft primarily designed to survive the first nine minutes of a multi-year mission — is enough to get you to drink the Tang. But what happens when the capital needs start to really scale?
In his keynote Stuart Martin remarked how the financial crisis created the environment for government to step back and allow space to become a “sandbox for entrepreneurs.” Watching the dynamics at SpaceCom, centered on commercial partnerships with NASA, it was clear who owns the sandbox and who are the kids playing in it. At the center of SpaceCom was CASIS — the non-profit “Center for the Advancement of Science in Space” chartered by Congress to manage commercial applications of the International Space Station. No doubt this continued government control over access to space promotes, and perhaps even mandates, the business emphasis on public good I saw at SpaceCom. But it was also clear that the dynamic is changing, and the nation-state oligopoly on access to space is no longer to be taken for granted — as capital and tech join to develop their own means of commercial space production, and as more business-oriented arms of government focus on the opportunities coming into view.
There was no shortage of VCs at the conference, hunting for deals. While the real cosmic upside may be a generation or two out, there are plenty of near-orbit opportunities available for less patient capital.
The proliferation of GPS applications over the past fifteen years “democratized access to space,” observed Martin, and it was no surprise that so many of the pitches at SpaceCom were focused on next gen satellite applications with dual commercial and public utility — uses of space-based imaging to stop illegal fishing, achieve “Maritime Situational Awareness” in global shipping, map the dynamic routes of remote jungle roads, track the biomass density of Midwestern cornfields, detect excessive pesticide accumulations, monitor municipal infrastructure, and even flag the gathering of giant schools of jellyfish before they get sucked into the cooling systems of nuclear power plants. Add in the proliferation of launch systems, smaller and cheaper satellites, and the new wave of efforts to deploy constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit — like OneWeb’s plan to deliver global broadband from a network of 720 sats — and a profitably omniscient future appears much closer on the horizon.
This explosion of commercial eyes in the sky occurs in a highly regulated environment, with fifty years of public and private law governing access to and use of Earth orbit as a corporate asset, not unlike the licensing of spectrum within the atmosphere (if more heavily dominated by national security interests). But as the business models reach escape velocity, and look at asset acquisition beyond Earth orbit, it starts to sound a lot more like the wild frontier.
There’s a line in the film adaptation of The Martian where Matt Damon’s marooned astronaut, perked up as he heads out to traverse the red planet on a road trip to his ride home, jokes that by growing crops on Mars he has colonized it, and that by heading out in a land vehicle without legal authority to do so in a territory governed by the law of the sea, he has become a pirate. I’m not sure that legal analysis is quite right, but politically it seemed like the biggest truth in the movie.
Congress and the Asteroid Miners
The week before SpaceCom, probably not coincidentally, Congress passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, a bill intended to facilitate the commercial exploitation of space. The bill establishes statutory limitations of liability and government indemnifications for private space launch operators, extends the life of the ISS sandbox to at least 2024, further enables commercial uses of NASA’s Space Launch System, and, most interestingly, grants property rights under federal law to minerals found in outer space. Assuming the bill is signed into law, any U.S. citizen will now “be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained” through space mining activity.
Unfortunately for the libertarian terraformers of Silicon Valley, the bill specifically excludes ownership of asteroids themselves (but not of the minerals in them), due to preemptive obligations under international treaties. And the wannabe space privateers (or at least space litigators) will have to wait until next time, as the final version of the bill excluded earlier language that would have allowed for legal action to block “harmful interference” with efforts to obtain such space resources. But the emerging asteroid mining industry applauded, with Deep Space Industries Chairman Rick Tumlinson expressing his company’s pleasure at seeing “the beginnings of legal clarity in the field of space resource utilization,” and Planetary Resources President Chris Lewicki saying the bill “fuels a new economy that will open many avenues for the continual growth and prosperity of humanity.”
In those carefully drafted corporate press releases, the grittier subtext of the commercial space business seeps through the high-minded rhetoric — the need for more lebensraum to express our extractive approach to nature to fuel our own expansion, coupled with the use of Brother Eye to maximize efficient control and consumption of what’s left down here.
Planting the corporate flag
So who owns the moon? Who owns the asteroids, and the red sands of Mars? A quick dip into the arcane realm of space law reveals a thin layer of jurisprudence unlikely to survive a real-offworld stress test. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty deems the heavens “the province of all mankind” — an international commons. But nation-states are the ones charged to govern activities in outer space. The states and their subjects that launch objects into space retain ownership and control of those craft. And the only express legal prohibition on private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate is in the 1979 Moon Treaty, which no spacefaring nation has ratified. The door looks wide open for national politicians like the current U.S Congress to vest their citizens with extraterrestrial property rights and other charters, and as the business opportunities start to really manifest themselves, you can bet the race to do so will be on.
Beyond Earth orbit, the only real applicable law is gravity. The public law we have to restrain interstellar extraction of profit is limited by the reach of terrestrial enforcement (and the intrinsic weaknesses of international law). The approach in Congress’ latest enactment echoes the sovereign charters of the Age of Exploration — we know there are valuable resources out there, and if you want to go get them for us on your dime, we’ll give you the rights you need to do so. If existing law allows you to own the things you take into space, and the things you find when you get there, actually owning an acre of the Utopia Planitia is extra credit. Coming soon: Planet Lockheed?
When he was hawking corporate use cases for the ISS, NASA’s rep quipped that the one thing they can’t allow is NASCAR-style sponsorship patches. But the truth is, corporate astronauts are already here — I saw one give a motivational talk to a rapt crowd on the expo floor. It’s easy to see these developments through a 70s-vintage dystopian prism: after trashing the planet, Capital has turned its gaze into space. Silent Running, anyone? But one can also hope that the planetary idealism evident among the current generation of space entrepreneurs will persist as the industry develops. Maybe the company that gets chartered to terraform Ceres will be an evolved hybrid of intentional community and Spindletop wildcatter. A naive dream, perhaps, but probably more realistic than thinking that our fragile international institutions, barely able to maintain terrestrial order, can exert any real control on corporations that get off the planet.