As government funding for space programs dwindles, our greatest hope seems to lie with space entrepreneurs like SpaceX's Elon Musk, who wants to put a city on Mars — or Robert Bigelow, who wants to build the first space hotel. But should corporations really be controlling the future of space travel?
Certainly we need funding from the private sector if space travel is ever to become widespread. I'm not questioning whether commercial interests have a place in exploration. The real question is do we want corporations controlling the agenda for space travel, which is certainly what seems to be happening right now.
The UN's Outer Space Treaty, whose guidelines are strictly followed by government space programs, forbids the "appropriation" of other worlds by "occupation." It also includes this important rule: "States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies." In other words, don't export potentially harmful microbes and other materials from Earth into outer space.
But it's not clear that this treaty applies to private companies exploring space. Which means that SpaceX could start making land grabs on Mars, as well as planting Earth microbes in the seas of Europa. Do we really want to allow that?
Science fiction has already registered our fears about corporate-controlled space exploration in the Alien movies, where the evil Weyland-Yutani Corp. values the potential for weapons development more than human life. Do we want an Alien-like future for space? Al Jazeera reporter Josh Rushing posed the question to me recently in this way:
What would it be like if Captain Kirk had corporate logos all over his tunic the way NASCAR drivers do? How would that change Star Trek's vision of the future?
It was a good way to pose the question, because of course part of what makes Star Trek such a hopeful story is that humanity has in many ways transcended the problems caused by poverty and corporate control. What would it mean if Kirk had to answer to the profit motives of a board of directors instead of the peaceful exploration authorized by Starfleet Command?
What do you think? Is there a downside to the glory of SpaceX and other private space ventures?