Illustration for Izabella Kaminska's Capitalism’s threat to space

For a long time the idea of commercial space was an eccentric billionaire’s pipe dream. A fanciful desire of those with a penchant for Isaac Asimov novels.

Not so any more. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been sending payloads to space on a commercially viable basis since 2010. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is on track to take its first fully paid-up customers into near-space by the end of this year, all of which was revealed by my colleague John Sunyer’s recent piece on property space wars. And a company called Planetary Resources is making serious attempts to identify asteroids for commercial mining missions in the not too distant future.

Small surprise then that the issue of extraplanetary property rights has been raised by the likes of Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, a company hoping to put private living quarters in space.

Above all, Bigelow is worried that if the capitalist west doesn’t go about annexing celestial bodies in the name of private enterprise, some other nation will go empire-building in its own name instead.

The argument pro property rights is simple. What we’re approaching is a new Wild West period for humanity. A time when anyone ingenious or intrepid enough to get themselves into space should rightfully be rewarded with ownership and autocracy over the land masses they discover or forge. Especially since this time around there are no native inhabitants, or at least none that we humans can divine, to be displaced in the process.

Call it the classic expansionist approach to property allocation. Or as comedian Eddie Izzard once joked, stealing countries with the cunning use of flags. If you can claim it and defend it, it becomes yours.

The problem with this way of thinking is that the Wild West is a poor analogy for space exploration. First there’s the access issue. Getting to the New World may have been harsh and costly, but it was still exponentially easier – and thus more equitable – than getting to space. Second, when the pilgrims set sail for America, they never looked back. Yes, they still depended on trade, but they did so on an equal footing with their trade partners because they had just as many valuable resources, if not more, to exchange.

The American war of independence was about shedding the yoke of the old land, which still desired to rule the colonies despite their self-sufficiency. The same clearly does not apply to the hostile territory of space. The chance that any colonist on Mars, the Moon or an asteroid will be self-sufficient enough to break their dependence on Earth is infinitesimally small. To the contrary, private missions are likely to remain dependent on national jurisdictions for launches and life support for decades if not centuries.

Is it a risk, then, that nation-states will see this as an invitation to go empire-building in space instead? Unlikely. Article II of the UN Outer Space Treaty already sets out the parameters clearly: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

It is a treaty we should be thankful for, not least because it paved the way to a truly unprecedented era of international co-operation, resulting in, among other things, the International Space Station. If any sovereign state dared to break it, say by invading the Moon, they would, without a shadow of a doubt, find themselves testing the international community, and consequently the established nuclear power balance here on Earth. That means, for as long as a space colony depends on Earth-based ties, the incentive for a nation-state to abide by Earth-based rules remains. It’s game theory.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for private enterprise. A power-hungry space baron could feasibly argue that the UN treaty does not apply to them since they are not a sovereign state. Then there is also the caveat that the treaty only refers to celestial rather than man-made bodies.

This is what you could call the dark side of space commercialisation. The point at which open access to space creates a Pandora’s box effect that in the name of competition compromises space co-operation and disrupts the power balance we’ve achieved both in space and on Earth. The point when a power-hungry billionaire could find a legal path to building his own Death Star.

Elon Musk’s testimony to the Senate appropriations hearing on March 5 speaks of the potential power play in hand. As he argued, US national security is being undermined by the country’s dependence on Russian parts and launches, especially in light of the latter’s de facto annexation of the Crimea region. It would be much better, says Musk, if the US transferred more of its business to private enterprises like SpaceX. To Musk, access to space should be treated the same way access to commodities is treated on Earth. The only problem with this analogy is that private corporations competing for commodities still have to abide by national rules. Commercial space enterprises, it seems, would prefer it if sovereign states became dependent on private enterprise instead – the surest way of exposing Earth to the risk of a megalomaniac that wants to rename Mars one day.

Izabella Kaminska is an FT Alphaville reporter

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