Billionaires May Be the Future of Space Policy. Here’s What They Want.
Space nations, UFOs, and Mars colonies are on the wish list.
Last month, the first space nation left the International Space Station.
That space nation, Asgardia-1, is actually a satellite containing personal data from some of the “nation’s” 300,000 “citizens,” launched into space by billionaire Igor Ashurbeyli.
Asgardia is as yet unrecognized by the United Nations, and its citizens are people who filled out an application form. The goal “is to provide permanent presence of humans in space,” Ashurbeyli told Foreign Policy in a recent interview.
Ashurbeyli isn’t the only billionaire with unusual ideas about what humanity should be doing in space. On Saturday, Politico and the New York Times both published articles revealing that another tycoon, Robert Bigelow, had convinced lawmakers to secretly appropriate money to have the Pentagon look for UFOs.
In fact, a number of private individuals of great wealth are charting the future of space policy, whether through money or influence. Some are in it for commercial interests, others for scientific curiosity. But whatever the reason, their new space race will change the rules of the game — space is currently the realm of governments (the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was written for countries, not business magnates), and so the involvement of wealthy individuals is changing the nature of all that’s out of this world.
Here are some of their plans:
Life on Mars: Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which he founded and leads as both CEO and CTO, makes space launch vehicles. The company is trying to advance rocket technology, decrease the cost of human spaceflight — notably by reusing rockets, and colonize Mars. But some see Musk as more commercially than environmentally motivated in his quest to escape Earth. In the 1970s, getting away from Earth was, in a way, about getting back to it — that is, an escape from governments and religions and a move toward environmental consciousness, according to Patrick McCray of University of California, Santa Barbara. “The part that I find odd, or maybe just disappointing, is that the original ideas about moving people off this planet into space in large numbers had more of an environmental angle, trying to improve society as a whole,” McCray told FP. “I’m not really seeing that in Elon Musk’s descriptions of colonies on Mars.”
Space tourism: Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, founded in 2000, also exists in part to bring down the cost of space travel by reusing rockets. But the company is interested in suborbital human space flights. On Dec. 12, Blue Origin launched its New Shepard tourist rocket for the first time in more than a year (the tourist this time, however, was a test dummy).
Blue Origin actually launched an earlier version of that reusable rocket into space and landed it back on Earth intact before SpaceX conducted a similar exercise, but SpaceX’s rocket was longer, and its flight was longer. None of that stopped Bezos from tweeting, “Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!” in Dec. 2015. “Elon is absolutely fixated on going to Mars, and I think it“s his life mission,” Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, said in October on CNBC’s Squawk Box. “Jeff and ourselves [at the Virgin Group] are more interested in how we can use space to benefit the Earth.” Virgin Galactic is looking to send a manned spacecraft up to altitudes of over 50 miles above Earth’s surface in the coming months.
Space tourism might someday include a stay in a space hotel, if Bigelow — yes, the one who got the Pentagon to spend money on searching for UFOs — has his way. Bigelow Aerospace has high hopes of sending an inflatable hotel to orbit the moon. The company already has a commercial module mounted outside the International Space Station, where it will remain for at least three more years.
Alpha Centauri dreams: Yuri Milner’s followers are quick to tell you that, unlike Bezos, Branson, and Musk, Milner is not out to make money from space. Rather, he put $100 million into the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative to push scientists to send a probe to Alpha Centauri (the closest star system to our solar system). He’s also Russian, and thus hailed by some as an example of the way in which the involvement of the mega-rich could help further harmony between even unfriendly countries. “Moving away from politics into the science-commercial approach, which is more global, is a blessing, in a way,” said Avi Loeb, chairman of the astronomy department at Harvard University and of the advisory committee for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative.
Space is, at present, one of the only arenas in which Russia and the United States are playing nice. The two countries agreed to work together to build the first space station to orbit the moon as recently as late September. That plan could fall by the wayside if private wealthy citizens take the place of governments — Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Trump’s pick to head NASA, has already said he would re-evaluate Russia’s relationship with the United States in space. (At present, the United States relies on Russia for transit to and from the International Space Station, for which it pays $81 million a seat.) Adam Routh of the Center for a New American Security said he could imagine a world in which businessmen in space ask themselves, “What is the net gain for partnering with Russians?”
Asteroid mining: Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, the CEO and executive chairman, respectively, of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, both invested in Planetary Resources, whose mission is to mine asteroids, “add trillions of dollars to the global GDP,” and “help ensure humanity’s prosperity.” “I think it’s actually growing the pie,” said Peter Marquez, vice president for global engagement at Planetary Resources, of private citizens joining national governments in space exploration. “They’re doing different things, but they’re all doing them in space.” Marquez is another optimist when it comes to the involvement of wealthy men on the actions of governments, saying it is “increasing cooperation,” because investors are coming from different countries, where they are well known and influential. That influence is needed for regulatory support, because the laws governing space are, in some cases, still to be written.
Space nations: That brings us back to Ashurbeyli, who doesn’t want to increase government cooperation, but to do away with governments all together. There is “one humanity, one unity,” Ashurbeyli said. Any individual anywhere in the world 18 or over can apply for citizenship in Asgardia, the first space nation. Ashurbeyli envisions one day putting arks of pensioners into space, and then, eventually, colonizing the moon. The Asgardia-1 satellite launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, and it holds Asgardia’s “citizens’” data, stored in space, safe away from the rules and regulations of feuding nations (except, of course, for the United States, the laws of which technically govern the satellite because it launched from a NASA-funded mission; terms and conditions of the “country’s” constitution warned, “Asgardia reserves the right to refuse access … to any user … [violating] any of the copyright or trademark laws of the United States, Austria or Great Britain.”). Ashurbeyli would not disclose how much this cost, but he said it could be paid for with the money he had in his pocket. (He would not say how much he had in his pocket, either.)
Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin