Government vs. Private Industry: Who Should Colonize The Stars?

Two very interesting points were brought up by commenters on the previous post. One point is legal–what is the role of government in space exploration and interplanetary colonization? Up to this point virtually all space exploration has been conducted by governments who saw space as being in their people’s best interest, simply because these were the only agencies who had the resources to do it.

But as technology advances, private companies have begun to announce their intent to get in on the game. In April, a group of private billionaires has formed a company with the goal of mining asteroids for profit. A month later, SpaceX became the first commercial entity to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station. Shortly thereafter, a Dutch company announced plans to establish a permanent colony on Mars by 2023–which it would fund partially by making life on the red planet’s surface into a reality show.

(Image below by the privately owned and operated MarsOneTimeline.)

Anybody who’s been paying much attention to politics in the U.S. has heard the impassioned debate over the virtues of government control vs. private industry. These concerns are especially poignant when it comes to the matter of space colonization–where the stakes may involve the very lives of interplanetary colonists, or the entire future of a human society to be established on another world. Who does it best: big government, or big business?

Extending the arguments applied to other inudstries, proponents of government-led space colonization would say that only an elected government can be trusted to hold people’s best interests at heart. The only sure interest of any entity is self-interest; for commercial entities that’s profit, for elected entities it’s voters’ opinions. For this reason, our socialists would say, government is more likely to take care of its astronauts–caution costs money, after all, and for nobody would the cost-benefit ratio of safety be higher than for an entity which is (ideally) completely controlled by public opinion.

Industrial disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (which occurred because many warnings from government regulators about safety violations were ignored by corporate higher-ups), or ongoing workers’ rights issues such as the Apple factory suicides might be cited as arguments against private control of space colonization. After all, these humanitarian catastrophes have gone largely unnoticed in public dialogue, and the Deepwater Horizon spill negatively effected its parent company almost only due to government action. The same sort of conditions in a government-run operation, our proponents would argue, would have a huge impact on public opinion and hence the subsequent elections. So, who do we want to put in charge of the future of humanity on other worlds?

Now let’s look at it from the flip side. Proponents of privately-spearheaded space colonization might point out that profit motive can be a very powerful impetus for technological progress. They might also point out that our governments appear to have simply lost the will to move forward–a half-century after the first Moon landing, few governments are even talking about getting humans to Mars, and those who are seem incapable of raising the funds for it. While our governments scramble to cut costs and divert money to urgent humanitarian issues like healthcare, private entrepreneurs say that a commercial angle is what is needed to fund a Mars mission. Could the colonization of other planets, even further out, end up playing out the same way? If so, to whom would we be handing power over, say, the second genesis of history on Kepler 22b?

And then, an even stickier question: if a private entity does muster the immense resources needed to colonize another planet, should government, under any circumstances, stop them?

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7 Responses to Government vs. Private Industry: Who Should Colonize The Stars?

  1. spacefinance says:

    Reblogged this on Space Finance and commented:
    Private industry and nonprofits and NGO’s should settle other worlds such as planets, moons and large asteroids.

    Colonizing stars is a stupid idea because stars are hot and any craft that attempted to land would burn up. Colonization on Earth by imperialist nations has always led to wars, colonialism and genocide. Government should not be in space at all. Government Space Programmes (GSP’s) should not even exist. Free Space !!!

    We need freedom in space, free enterprise in space , and free space. Let the governments send all their missions to the sun where they will burn up and therefore leave people alone to live in peace without imperialism, without colonialism, and without genocide.

    Government is bad and only delivers death and taxes. The whole reason people want to go into space is to get away from government and its death & taxes. People want immortality and freedom and space.

  2. Page 28 says:

    Working at the Space and Rocket Center, I’d ask my kids this all the time. It’s a good debate, and one that points to a clearly ambiguous answer (ba dum pah). What I simply hope is that we do indeed get to the point where we can have the debate, in full. By that I mean that our technology, infrastructure, and culture has progressed to allow for that possibility to come to fruition. We’re close, and that Dragon capsule is encouraging. But we shall see.

  3. Page 28 says:

    By the way, is the above commenter serious hah?
    [waits for retaliation flame]

  4. Ivan Babichev says:

    Interesting Post, my thoughts on the advantages of private versus public funding for space flight are almost precisely opposite yours. Firstly, I think government is more likely to behave abusively than private corporations. Governments have been running the space exploration game for the last forty years and we already are developing a massive problem with debris pollution. Government research, particularly into nuclear weapons technology, has created several large public health catastrophes which are unmatched by any private industry abuse with the exception of the Bhopal disaster.

    By contrast, government funded research into space exploration, nuclear weapon development, agriculture, and to a lesser extent meteorology has generated tens of thousands of patented but cheaply available technologies which have hugely enhanced public welfare. The private sector, with its disdain for uncertainty and rigorous protection of intellectual property rights is unlikely to generate anywhere close to the research benefits per dollar expended on R&D as the public sector will.

    The problem is one of incentives. If private space exploration companies will be shut down for behaving abusively by government regulators, then from a ethical stand point is endlessly preferable to favor private space exploration, since they will be incentivized to behave well. However, these private companies will also invest much less in “basic research” and will generally try to keep their discoveries out of the hands of competitors. If we wish to drive aerospace technology forward, then the old model is probably the best way to go.

    Some thoughts…

    • kagmi says:

      I suppose it comes down to a matter of trust. I personally currently feel more inclined to trust the government than private industry–which probably has something to do with the current dialogue in America whereby big businesses seem to be trying to squeeze everyone for all they’re worth, while the government is trying to put in place protections to ensure things like workers’ rights and healthcare for all.

      Between recent revelations about the overseas manufacturing practices of American-based corporations, and the fact that nearly all of America’s big banks are under investigation for fraud following the crash of the housing market and the economy, I’m just not feeling that great about profit motives right now.

      But, the government does seem to have its shortcomings as well. It doesn’t seem to be exactly good at getting things done fast–one thing I’ve been hearing in clinical research is that there are so many patient safety protections here now that it can take over a decade for a new drug to get from discovery to the open market.

      Of course, that’s in contrast to America’s private drug sector, which has many times been shown to under-report the negative side-effects of drugs and exaggerate the benefits. And has been sued repeatedly in recent years for harm to patients from side effects that were either not disclosed to the public, or not sufficiently tested for…side effects like heart attack and stroke.

      So I guess I’m still feeling better about government than private industry at the moment. But I can see pros and cons to each.

      • Ivan Babichev says:

        I agree that it is a matter of trust, but the whole benefit to private industry is that you don’t need to trust them, you just need to be ready to sue the crap out of them if they screw up. If you let the government manage space exploration, then you have to believe that government will effectively police its self, which it often will, but often also fail at. If you leave space exploration to private industry, you again need to trust the government regulators not to “get into bed with” the industry. So the trade off is trust in one form of government for another.

        The drug approval system in this country has some serious issues, and it’s not surprising that private industry has failed to “police its self” whenever it can choose the labs it gives for drug approval testing. That having been said, The FDA still rejects far more patents for NME’s than it accepts, which show that the regulatory system works in some sense or another.

        Whatever private space flight takes place will undoubtedly be highly regulated, which means that trust in the private sector isn’t required, however Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

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