The Problem Billionaires Are Overlooking in Their Race to Space
Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk see dollar signs in space, but we need to avoid a tragedy of the commons.
When I was 9 years old, the New York Times published a picture of me looking at one of the moon rocks brought back by the astronauts. The year was 1969, and my father worked at the Museum of Natural History; the paper wanted a shot with a kid looking at a symbol of our future in space. So I got to see up close what everyone else had to view inside a large box (not that it looked different than an ordinary backyard rock).
Fast forward 50 years, and what do we have going on in space now? In the United States, NASA has retired its space shuttles, ceding the ground to billionaires taking space exploration private—Elon Musk with SpaceX, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic are the most well-known. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are still very much in the game, but there is growing competition from the smaller upstarts.
Some of these billionaires have broader societal goals. Elon Musk wants to reduce the cost of cargo transport and trips to Mars to make humanity a multi-planet species, and Richard Branson wants to take tourists to space. In a recent interview with CNBC, Jeff Bezos said he wanted to protect our planet by turning space into the place where we manufacture all the stuff we currently manufacture on earth, thus no longer polluting our backyards. “Earth can be zoned residential,” says Bezos.
Unfortunately, we are well on our way to turning space into a giant garbage dump rather than a manufacturing hub or tourism destination.
NASA is tracking 500,000 pieces of space junk, some of which is satellite and rocket waste. There are 4,000 satellites in space, most of which are no longer functioning. They are either left there or propelled into a “graveyard orbit,” which has more and more drifting space corpses. We’re putting more satellites up into space every year than come down.
There are also an estimated 150 million tiny bits of debris that are difficult to track, but due to their velocity, they can damage space stations, rockets and shuttles.
On the plus side, SpaceX has created rockets that will be reusable. Yet 95 percent of the mass of a rocket is its fuel. If we begin to have increasingly regular commercial rocket launches, the carbon footprint will become significant.
So, we have a billionaire vision of many tourists traveling in space, many space factories manufacturing stuff, many rockets blasting off with supplies for the space factories and tourists as well as satellites, and many ships going to Mars and elsewhere.
One wonders: Where does the waste from the space factories, and the rockets and the shuttles and the tourists go? How do we ensure the safety of people and technology if they might get hit by a random piece of garbage traveling up to 17,500 mph? And what about all those lovely greenhouse gas emissions?
Clearly, we need global regulation that enforces safe disposal of satellites, space stations, shuttles and rockets (China tried blasting a satellite and simply created additional pieces of debris—clearly not a solution). Second, we need government support for technologies that can clean up the existing garbage; the EU and some enterprising companies are working on that already. Third, we need to find low and no carbon energy sources for the rockets (experiments with renewable bio-propane, water, solar, etc. may be promising). And finally, we need a global zoning plan for development that manages the impacts of manufacturing, tourism and other uses of space, so we don’t have another tragedy of the commons as we have with our oceans. (To see the space junk in real time, click here). Properly regulated, the commercial space industry could be a boon for humanity. But the time to put those rules in place is now.