More corporations are starting to get into space exploration. How does this emerging market work?
20th century science fiction had a problem; its authors loved writing free-market fantasias where plucky individualists explored the stars courtesy of privately-underwritten corporations and bold men took to space to escape the oppressive hand of Big Government, but in the real world, the only thing that put anyone outside the atmosphere was concerted government effort at great expense. That awkward contradiction is easing somewhat today, with SpaceX running missions to and from the International Space Station, and a new outfit called Deep Space Industries seeking to achieve the old dream of asteroid mining.
In a certain sense, this follows a well-established pattern. Public funding covers basic research, developing the tools and technologies that make the impossible possible (If you’re reading this on a computer, say “Thank you, Big Government!”), and then private industry takes those tools and finds a way to use them to turn a buck. A massive research grant could allow the development of communication links between computer systems, but it took good old American know-how to think of putting naked pictures on it.
So even if space research hasn’t directly benefited you (kidding; it definitely has), it’s still laid the groundwork for these new private ventures to offer things from space tourism to… well, running missions for NASA. Indeed, a majority of SpaceX’s missions are still the same public money, just going through a middleman now. Interestingly, though, many of their missions are for companies or government groups outside the United States. Countries like Argentina and Israel are able to use SpaceX’s services, built on NASA’s research, without any international friction or prestige issues, since they’re just buying services from a contractor.
Herein lies the danger of oversimplifying an imagined government/industry dichotomy: back when it was all publicly funded, space exploration was driven by ruthless, cutthroat competition between nations. Now that it’s beginning to be privatized, competition is giving way to cooperation. Ayn Rand and Leon Trotsky must both be turning over in their graves.