When you think of space travel, do you think of NASA? The Russian space program? The Chinese government?
Old thinking, because the newest players in space may be taking over the game. I’m talking about global corporate interests. Big money. While governments continue to keep the budgets of organizations like NASA in near-starvation mode, the corporate stars of the world are stepping to the front of the line. People like Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, Larry Page of Google, Elon Musk from PayPal, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. They’ve been getting together over martinis (or something expensive) and forming new companies to explore—and exploit—outer space. We’ve known for some years that Virgin Galactic plans to fly tourists to the edge of space and back (for $200,000 a crack, thank you very much), and they are getting closer to their first paying trips. I’ve written before about SpaceX, whose Dragon spacecraft are already flying supply missions to the International Space Station. But there are also new startup companies like Moon Express, preparing to build (and use) landers for the Moon. Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids, and maybe even save us from those threatening meteor strikes we keep hearing about. Deep Space Industries is another would-be mining company. And we shouldn’t forget less commercial, but equally enterprising ventures like Inspiration Mars (mentioned in my last post), planning to send a married couple to Mars in about five years from now, and Mars One, a group that hopes to have a colony on the Red Planet by 2023.
These people are not fruitcakes, but some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the new economy. And their plans sound like fantastic dreams, but they’ve got solid scientists working with them. The space race is going corporate.
Was this inevitable? Since we taxpayers tend to cast our eyes closer to home on our hospitals and our roads, maybe governments just can’t continue to back the exploration of space and it’s up to the moneymakers to do it.
You can see the attraction for them. Talk about your offshore tax havens! Claim an asteroid and make the rules—who’s really going to stop them? Laws? The law of gravity is the only really important one, and it’ll ensure monopolies for the companies rich enough to break it. But lets not forget tourist opportunities: what high roller wouldn’t want to show off to his friends in a casino in Earth orbit, with all of we peasants zipping past below?
By the way, we’ll still be funding all of these ventures—by being the customers of Google, PayPal, Amazon and the like, and then buying the products these new companies bring back from way out there.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Did you think Columbus sailed to America because he felt like tanning on a new beach?