In 2010, former president Barack Obama, in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, revealed the disappointing future of NASA, the US government-run space program. Although there was a slight increase in budget, it did not outweigh the fact that most US plans to explore space further were effectively shut down. A lot of people saw this as a bad decision effectively abandoning all the time and money already poured into projects like the Constellation Program and the Orion spacecraft. Some of the biggest critics were former commanders of space missions, while others were political supporters like Elon Musk, the CEO of the private space exploration company, SpaceX. As NASA slowed down, SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and others become more active. Today, most of US space exploration is led by the private sector or joint ventures between private companies and NASA.
While both the private and public sectors are active, there are pros and cons to each side.
The main downside and fear surrounding the idea of a for-profit space exploration program is that, traditionally, companies tend to try to maximize profits. After all, if the company is not government funded, then it needs profit to sustain itself. This could mean cutting corners or making decisions motivated more by balance sheets and safety. This is exacerbated when it comes to something as potentially dangerous as space travel. Once successfully in space, the small group of private enterprises – an oligopoly – raises competitive concerns and too centralized control of vital resources potentially found in our solar system and the colonization of planets. It may sound like sci-fi, but a company owning a station on the Moon could control prices for all of the inhabitants for oxygen, food, or water with possibly no regulation to keep it in check.
On the plus side, the privatization of space exploration by companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Virgin Galactic may well be the only option if we want to see real progress. Budget cuts and decision-making delays in Congress are undoubtedly holding space exploration back. There is a suggestion that the exploration of space can lead to further resources and unique manufacturing opportunities, e.g., certain products produced in zero-gravity could potentially be more effective. Some believe we can make progress more effectively and quickly if driven by profits.
In truth, space exploration at the moment is a combination of both these pros and cons without a clear path to success. The issue is more than just a black and white comparison of pros and cons. Today, the private and the public sectors are working in tandem in a way that benefits them both. But one thing is certain. As the US tries to find the right balance between public and private exploration of space, the Moon and Mars, other countries, most notably China, are investing billions to gain an edge in the new frontier. In fact, many say China is in the lead in today’s space race. Whoever wins that race will have a global advantage for decades to come.