Monetizing the Final Frontier

History, of course, would suggest that treaties crumble when serious money comes into play. Western settlers signed treaties with indigenous people in the Americas, then ignored them, as Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium and another cofounder of the JustSpace Alliance, noted.

“In many cases,” she told me, “treaties are good until somebody discovers something that they want.” She’s a fan of the Outer Space Treaty, finding it “a very, like, hopeful, peaceful, almost Star Trek-esque view of what space is.” She hopes it proves stronger than it looks.

Historically, however, law tends to follow the facts on the ground rather than shape them. When a new geography for commerce opens, whoever shows up first to exploit the resources sets the norm—and then law is written to validate the first movers. “‘First come, first serve’ is essentially what’s going to happen when people start to do things on the moon,” Peter Ward, author of The Consequential Frontier, said.

Yet before the great water rush on the moon starts in earnest, one key point is worth pausing over: The supply of ice on the moon is limited. The estimated water reserves up there may be eye-popping at first glance, but they’re not that big. They likely add up to “three to five cubic kilometers of water, based on the studies that have come up,” said James Schwartz, a philosopher who also studies the ethics of space exploration. “Not a lot of water compared to even moderate- or small-size lakes on Earth.” It wouldn’t be that hard for a concerted explosion of commercial activity to chew through it all.

That may sound far-fetched, but, as all these space ethicists note, to the eyes of nineteenth-century explorers and industrialists, our planet seemed limitless, too—and it only took another century-plus of rapid commercial activity to tear through a diminishing store of finite resources. The environmental implications of exhausting the moon seem ludicrously sci-fi and far-off right now, and they’ll remain so for a long time—until, abruptly, they’re not. As with low-Earth orbit, outer space becomes much smaller and more cramped when you start thinking at commercial scale.

In any event, the moon is chiefly envisioned as a way-station project among the most ambitious cohort of space privatizers. A settled moon colony would serve as the push-off point for the main event, commercially speaking, for New Space entrepreneurs: mining the asteroid belt.

Asteroids are almost comically rich in precious materials. The asteroid Ryugu, for example, has about $82 billion in nickel and iron, according to the “Asterank” asteroid-value–ranking project. Another, Bennu, boasts a cool $669 million worth of iron and hydrogen. “You could totally collapse the gold and platinum market on Earth by mining asteroids,” joked Jacob Haqq Misra, a senior research investigator with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a nonprofit that encourages space exploration.

But there’s a hitch: Nobody has much of an idea how you’d actually mine an asteroid. Despite what you’ve seen in lumbering sci-fi epics like Armageddon, merely grabbing hold of a comparatively small, city-block–size object in microgravity is a forbidding physics puzzle—to say nothing of actually refining whatever you find.

One thing’s clear, however: In order to reach an asteroid, you’d need a lot of fuel for robotic probes. (Oxygen, too, if you’re bringing along a human crew.) This would likely be too expensive to do from Earth, given its gravity. The moon, on the other hand, is a sweet spot to base one’s commercial mining endeavors: enough gravity so humans can live in a base and assemble a rotating corps of mining robots, but sufficiently little gravity that launching mining probes at asteroids is easy.

“It takes so much energy to escape Earth’s orbit, by the time you do that, you’re basically halfway to anywhere in the universe,” Anderson said. “The moon as a launchpad—there’s a lot of commercial value there.”

Some New Space firms harbor still greater plans, in line with the classic “civilizing mission” that animated so many colonial land rushes in recent terrestrial history. Jeff Bezos wants to build space stations that rotate fast enough to simulate Earth gravity—and large enough to host entire cities full of residents. It’s a vision he built from a youth steeped in sci-fi. At Princeton, he took a class with Gerard O’Neill, a physicist who’d been arguing since the 1960s that humanity had to slip the surly bonds of Earth in order to survive over the long haul. O’Neill argued that living in space and mining asteroids represented the only path forward for the human race to continue growing and prospering without laying waste to planet Earth. He laid it out as a simple proposition of geology: If you were to mine the entire Earth down half a mile, leaving it a honeycombed crater, you’d still only get 1 percent of the metals and substances from the three biggest asteroids.

Bezos has eagerly endorsed the space-colony vision. In the short term, Bezos’s plans are the standard-issue vision for the New Space entrepreneur: building rockets and spacecraft that NASA will hire in order to resume landing astronauts on the moon. But in the long run—decades hence—building space colonies is, as he has argued, the only mission he can find big enough to devote his life and riches toward. “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource,” Bezos told Business Insider, “is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.”

The unexpected costs of Bezos-style space exploitation are, as yet, a little distant—decades, at least. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from observing the human and environmental wreckage of the industrial era, it’s that history is like space travel: The path you set at the beginning is critical. Changing course later on is much harder. So it behooves us to plan now. Are there ways to avoid the worst possible outcomes in space? How is commercial life in space going to unfold?

The world’s small community of space ethicists has, in recent years, been increasingly pondering this, and they’ve come to some unsettling conclusions. First off, they note, the big winners in space will likely be … the big winners on Earth. “I think it’s going to benefit the wealthy people that are running these mining firms,” Schwartz said bluntly. There are, as New Space investors today will tell you, winner-take-all dynamics. Bezos built a supply chain that is helping Amazon gradually dominate the world. Space will probably have room for only a few winners. So in order to envision the future contours of space conquest, it’s probably a safe bet to take all the harms of monopoly we see on this planet and project them on to a literally cosmic scale.

And that leads, in turn, to a corollary prophecy: Human rights in space are likely to be execrable, if they’re left up to the private sector.

Consider that anyone working in space will be reliant upon their employer for the most basic stuff of life. That’s not just food and water, but breathable oxygen, on a minute-by-minute basis. Plenty of science fiction has, over the years, war-gamed the bleak implications of these precarious situations. In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the employees of “The Company” are sent unwittingly to encounter a vicious alien life-form, with The Company hoping it would get a profitable specimen out of this. More recently, the TV show The Expanse depicts the lives of asteroid miners as an outright form of slavery. One could, again, regard this as the typical pessimism of left-wing creative types—until one ponders workers’ rights on Earth as they exist now. Employees in Amazon’s warehouses are already peeing into bottles and collapsing from heat exhaustion in their attempt to satisfy their employer’s relentless work quotas; imagine if the company also controlled their breathable air.

Charles Cockell is a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh who’s written at length about the question of freedom in space settlements. He’s generally a libertarian, so he’s concerned about concentrations of power in both governments and private-sector firms in space.

“The controls on freedom of movement on the moon or Mars are worse than in North Korea,” he told me. “You can’t just walk out of a settlement.” Control of oxygen, he predicted, will empower the worst instincts of authoritarians of any stripe. “It will attract the coercively inclined and petty officialdom like all these things do…. It will attract people who crave power. You have to assume that that will lead to tyranny.”

These thought experiments don’t all conclude in grim dead-ends, however. There’s a whole arm of space ethics and philosophy devoted to asking the questions: Could the prospect of settling space positively serve society and justice? Could it offer up new ways of thinking about how we organize civic relations?

Coping with scarcity in space might impel settlers to reconsider some of the basic tent­poles of Western society. One is prison: On Mars, jailing someone would cost billions. A settlement would, as the astrophysicist and ethicist Nesvold noted, wonder, “Is it even worth it?” They’d be far more liable to consider styles of justice that don’t involve locking people up. The same goes for environmental thinking. Water and air will be so precious to space settlers that “the people who are living in space are going to be much more concerned about resource conservation,” Schwartz said. “It could be the attitudes that we get there are ones that are helpful to send back [to Earth].”

The idea of space as a fresh slate for political thinking is enticing. But it’s hemmed in by the very nature of the market forces currently reaching for the skies. Would any private-sector firms heading to space agree to limit their power when they’re beyond Earth’s grasp? Nesvold and Lucianne Walkowicz think it’s possible. There is, they believe, a window of opportunity right now, while commercial space activity is still ramping up, to convince everyone in New Space—from the firms to their early (and crucial) governmental clients—to take space ethics seriously. They’ve been pursuing two tracks of inquiry along these lines: first, talking directly to New Space companies about the political, social, and environmental aspects of space exploitation. (The smaller firms, Nesvold noted, are often eager to talk; the big ones—the SpaceXs and Blue Origins—not so much.) Walkowicz has also been holding public events to get everyday citizens to discuss, as she put it, “becoming interplanetary.”

“I think making the infrastructure of getting to spaceflight cheaper and more sustainable, reusable, all of that stuff is great—I love watching rocket launches as much as the next person,” Walkowicz told me. But she wants a much broader cross-section of the public to have a voice on how space is used. As she frames things, it’s a simple matter of public accountability: For all the self-mythologizing among New Space titans about the new, scrappy, and libertarian cast of modern space exploration, it’s still NASA—and by extension, the people’s treasury—that’s projected to supply the biggest revenue stream for much New Space activity today, and in the near future. In other words, we the people are paying for many of these rocket launches, and the huge outlays that will help bankroll the hard stuff, like future human colonies on the moon.

So the public ought to have more input on how the projected settlement and exploitation of outer space actually happens. Walkowicz and Nesvold want to create a bigger sample of people informed about the stakes in the new space race, people who’d lobby Congress to help lay down the new American road rules for space—from keeping orbits clean to the question of who gets to ride on those taxpayer-funded rockets in the first place.

Space, in other words, needs to be “decolonized.” That’s a coinage gaining currency among some space thinkers, including Lindy Elkins-Tanton. She’s a planetary scientist with one foot in the world of New Space, and another in the world of space ethics. She’s the head of the NASA “Psyche” project, which is launching a probe next year to explore the metallic asteroid Psyche. On the one hand, she is herself benefiting directly from the lower costs that New Space has created, so she’s generally a fan of commercial interests making space more viable. Her probe will launch on a SpaceX rocket, and it’s so much cheaper than NASA’s older launches that it makes her science far more affordable. (“I’m sure I’m not supposed to tell you, but I’ll tell you: It’s a lot of money,” she said.)

Yet as Elkins-Tanton noted, the story of new frontiers being settled is the history of colonization, fueled by moneyed interests. Whether it was Europeans heading to North America or Africa or parts of Asia, it was generally huge state interests putting up the money for risk-taking explorers—with the explorers getting rich, the states amassing power, the new frontiers becoming gradually stripped of resources, and their indigenous populations either killed or impoverished.

“Decolonization,” as she and other New Space ethicists put it, would be a different route. It’d be the act of exploring space with that history in mind, and working deliberately in concert to avoid its brutalities. What would that mean? Elkins-Tanton argued, like Walkowicz and Nesvold, that any voyages to space need to have much greater democratic participation. For years, she’s been organizing annual projects that bring together a disparate array of thinkers—astrophysicists, artists, indigenous scholars—to plan for things such as how a Mars colony might exist without becoming a human rights nightmare.

“We need artists and philosophers and sociologists, psychologists and every other kind of person thinking about how we do this thing,” she said. This can sound, she admitted, touchy-feely. But in her own work as an astronomer, the big-tent approach has paid off. When Elkins-Tanton initially pitched the Psyche mission to NASA, she was competing with 28 other pitches, and asking NASA to commit $750 million. To build her proposal, she insisted her team members, down to the college interns, “speak up” about their concerns—how things could go wrong, and what unexpected outcomes of the project might be. “Our motto is, the best news is bad news brought early,” she said. “You need everybody to be able to speak up.” In her pitch to NASA, she touted her insistent culture of inclusion. When NASA heads approved her mission over the other ones, they cited it as a crucial reason why.

“To them, it was a success metric,” she said. “So now I can stand up and say: Culture is not for the weak. Culture is literally worth $750 million.” It would be heartening if NASA seriously embraced this model. Decolonizing the way we explore space would actually honor the incredible unknowns and unexpected dangers the sustained commercial settlement of the heavens will bring. As John F. Kennedy said when he first argued for putting people on the moon: “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”

Leave a Reply