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?