On Feb. 6, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into space, and flung its cargo – a Tesla – on a trajectory to the asteroid belt. But more impressively, it returned the two outer rockets of the vessel to Earth for future reuse.
A third rocket missed its reentry target and can’t be reused, and the original trajectory of the Tesla was Mars orbit. But ambitious projects like this are never perfect, and this is a leap forward for private space enterprise nevertheless.
The goal of SpaceX (and of its founder Elon Musk) is to make space travel affordable and to eventually go to Mars. Creating reusable rockets is crucial to this effort, as it can dramatically reduce costs of launching things into space.
This is a change from previous space ventures, orchestrated by governments to achieve national ends like winning the Space Race, gaining prestige and enhancing military security. Space programs sponsored by governments and paid for by taxes don’t have profit motives – and are much less concerned with costs.
Private enterprises, however, don’t have the limitless credit of the Federal Government. If they want to go to space, they must bring back benefits consumers are willing to pay for and cover their costs.
This means private space ventures are economic in nature, not political. In the case of SpaceX, it is working towards establishing an array of satellites that can provide high speed internet access across the globe. Eventually, space capitalists will want to bring home resources from asteroids or begin some sort of revenue generating development.
This brings up a new set of questions for policymakers and international organizations. If governments are wise, they can establish rules of the space game that will make private actors secure in investing in space and keep the game competitive.
In most cases, precedents for situations in space can be found on Earth. Rules for ships in space don’t need to be too different from rules for ships at sea, and Antarctica already exists as territory outside the sovereignty of nation-states.
However, the most important factor for private space exploration — property rights — is something that is still debatable on the international scene. Many non-space faring nations believe that resources taken from space should be equally distributed among nations – something that clearly undercuts potential investment.
The United States should take the lead by establishing that private enterprises do have property rights in space and establishing the rules for what is and is not private property. This will ensure potential space explorers that their investments won’t be seized after success and will give them a better idea of what they will gain from exploration.
The government should not, however, intervene to help some of its nation’s space enterprises at the expense of others, even foreign competitors. There will be a temptation for the federal government to subsidize or protect U.S. companies to promote national prestige. This would be a mistake.
If the government intervenes to help SpaceX or any other company, either with subsidies or protection, that company will become less concerned with satisfying consumers and more with satisfying politicians and bureaucrats.
When European countries first began exploring the rest of the world, they chartered monopoly trading companies that were protected from foreign competition. These eventually became behemoth pseudo-states and bad for their consumers. It was ships from the British East India Company that were raided in the Boston tea party.
Other countries, like China, will undoubtedly involve their government to promote their own ventures — but insofar as they are protected and propped up, they will fail consumers. The U.S. should support a model of free enterprise, where success is determined by the market and ability to bring tangible benefits to consumers and society.
The government will probably not begin thinking about space policy until it faces some sort of dilemma. This is unfortunate, because having the right rules in place beforethey are necessary would be a big benefit to potential pioneers by helping them calculate the costs and benefits of propelling us into the future.