In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet, and didn’t protect the technology because he wanted it to benefit us all. Three decades later, most of the power – and a lot of the profits – of the internet are in the hands of a few tech billionaires, and much of the early promise of the internet is as yet unfulfilled.
To avoid the same fate for space, we need to subsidise new players to create competition and lower costs, and regulate space travel to ensure safety.
Space matters. Investors can already see its potential, having poured almost $9bn (£6.5bn) into companies in an industry with a potential market value of $3bn (£2.2bn) by 2030.
Space may seem too vast to be dominated by a few tech billionaires, but in 1989 so did the internet. We need to get this right, because from the mechanics and aerospace engineers to the marketing, information and logistics workers, the space industry could fuel global job creation and economic growth. It may even hold the solution to the climate crisis.
For that to happen, we need competition. What we have now is a few players operating perhaps for their founders’ benefits, not the world’s.
We should not repeat the mistakes we made with the internet and wait for the technology to be abused before we step in. For example, in the Cambridge Analytica scandal a private technology company used weapons-grade social media manipulation to pursue their own profit (which is their obligation to their shareholders) but to society’s harm (which it is regulators’ job to protect).
In space, the stakes are even higher. They also affect all of humanity, not a few countries. There are environmental dangers (we are probing the carbon cost of “earth” flights but not space flights), and an accident, as well as leading to loss of life in space, could send fatal debris back down to the planet.
These dangers are not unforeseen. Virgin Galactic already had its first fatality in 2014. A Space X launch puts out as much CO2 as flying 341 people across the Atlantic. Earlier this year some unguided space debris from a Chinese rocket landed in the Maldives.
We should not wait until these accidents happen again – perhaps at a bigger scale – before we act.
Space tourism can and should be about much more than giving the 1 per cent another Instagrammable moment, and increasing the wealth of the billionaires who provide the service.
The space industry should be managed in a way that delivers the most good to the largest number of people. That starts with subsidies.
In short, we should treat space travel like any other form of transit. Making that sustainable economically will almost inevitably require some government intervention.
We have been here before. When the combination of both air travel, highways, and rising labour costs led the two largest railways in America to bankruptcy, the Nixon administration intervened and created AmTrak.
This wasn’t ideologically fuelled (quite the opposite). This was a decision to make sure America reaped the economic benefits of interstate travel. Even though AmTrak remains unprofitable only 50 years after its creation, it is a crucial piece of economic infrastructure upon which many other industries – as well as millions of individuals and families – rely.
We need to do the same with space travel. Very few individuals will benefit from what will be an uber-luxury segment of the travel market – Virgin Galactic tickets are predicted to cost $250,000 (and that is the entry level space travel product, Virgin’s competitors are priced at multiples of that cost).
If we subsidise the industry now, while ensuring there are new competitors in the space industry, we can ensure it hits a critical mass where all the broader benefits of space travel become a reality.
This will be much easier than waiting for monopolies to emerge and then trying to fight them (which is what the FTC is trying to do, decades too late, to Big Tech).
Space travel is not just hype, or the plaything of billionaires. It is “the final frontier”, both physically and economically. If we want it to be a success, we should learn from our triumphs and failures back on earth and apply them to space now.
That means subsidies, support, regulation and safety. These things are important on earth, but in space they are absolutely essential.
Joshua Jahani is a lecturer at Cornell University and New York University, and a board advisor at the investment bank Jahani and Associates specialising in the Middle East and Africa. He has written for NBC, Newsweek, The Independent and CGTN
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