Shucking Oysters: Houston, we have a problem

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Shucking Oysters: Houston, we have a problem

By Alex Allen

You may have noticed that space exploration is no longer an arena for the inquisitive and the courageous. Like the ocean, outer space is poised to be commodified in the interests of personal economic gain with shades of benevolence. Driven by private corporations such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origins, we are entering a new era of the space capitalist, geared towards generating profits from satellite launches, space tourism, and asteroid mining, to name a few. 

As Victor L. Shammas and Tomas B. Holen wrote in One Giant Leap for Capitalistkind: Private Enterprise in Outer Space, “Neil Armstrong’s famous statement will have to be reformulated: space will not be the site of ‘one giant leap for mankind,’ but rather one giant leap for capitalistkind.” These space capitalists are “forging a new political-economic regime in space…aimed at profit maximization and the apparent minimization of government interference.” 

In 2018, a New Zealand start-up, Rocket Lab, launched thousands of miniature satellites as well as a giant, shining ‘Humanity Star’ into orbit around Earth. The geodesic sphere, made from carbon fibre with 65 highly reflective panels, mimicked a disco ball, reflecting sunlight back to Earth. Many astronomers expressed outrage at these plans. But, as Shammas and Holen, noted, “while these astronomers were incensed by the idea of a bright geodesic object disrupting their ability to carry out observations, concerns with the effects of the arrival of capitalistkind on their ability to collect data were non-existent.” Bob King warned on the Sky &Telescope website that “it won’t be long before there’s enough momentum for everyone from breweries to real estate companies to advertise their products and services with a ‘bright light’ in the sky.”

Another private venture group, Moon Express, has the vague mission: “to redefine possible by returning to the Moon and unlocking its mysteries and resources for the benefit of humanity.” The moon is “a new frontier for humanity with precious resources that can bring enormous benefits to life on Earth and our future in space.” And that’s not all, with hints of creepiness they add, “Not long from now a new generation will look up and see lights on the Moon, and know that they are part of a multi-world species.” 

Even though no one is actively mining the moon right now, there are companies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Finland, Norway, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Canada, the US, the UK, China, Thailand, India, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Australia, and Greece, all working on space mining technologies. Beyond asteroid mining, as an example, Meraki Space Systems, a private US military contractor, will later expand into the construction of “agriculture domes, hotels and settlements.”

A new World Economic Forum report released in April reveals that the global space economy will grow from $630 billion in 2023 to $1.8 trillion by 2035. Until 2035, the report acknowledges, with not a hint of transparency, that “most of the space tourism revenues will come from in-orbit stays aboard space stations as ultra-high-net-worth customers purchase their space travel experience.” Interestingly, you have to look long and hard for any mention of mining in the report. It appears in a table and twice, both as footnotes in four point type. In the “State-sponsored civil” section, “the moon could spur innovations in space habitation, mining and laboratories in its unique environment” and later in the all-encompassing industry category of “Other,” mining coyly appears with space tourism and in-space manufacturing.  

Of course, behind every space venture looms a thick web of government spending programs, regulatory agencies, public infrastructure, and universities financed by industry research grants. SpaceX would not exist were it not for its government-sponsored contracts. Evan Briscoe wrote that these “launches highlight an interesting dichotomy that is beginning to emerge in space exploration, as we see highly trained scientists and researchers juxtaposed with high paying billionaires, each boarding the same rockets and jettisoning into space. One group for research, another for recreation.”  

SpaceX is developing a massive rocket that will launch 1.25-ton satellites, adding to a fleet of 5,500 Starlink satellites already in space, part of a planned constellation of 42,000. It will soon be joined by Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation, followed by others jumping on the broad-bandwagon. According to a 2023 study in Ecological Economics, low-Earth orbit can only hold about 72,000 satellites without the risk of a Kessler syndrome event. This phenomenon happens when space collisions produce so much junk that the Earth’s orbit becomes unusable for any human activity. Space junk includes rocket bodies, explosions of satellites, dead satellites, and even tools lost by astronauts.

What we don’t hear much about is the effect on the environment. A study last October showed that the stratosphere is already littered with metals from re-entering spacecraft. When researchers began analyzing the data, they found high levels of particles like niobium and hafnium, chemicals that are only used in rocket boosters. 

Satellites could eventually total one million, requiring an even greater number of space launches creating even more emissions. Another study published in 2022 found that if the rate of rocket launches increased by a factor of 10, their emissions could cause temperatures in parts of the stratosphere to rise as much as 2 degrees Celsius. This could begin to compromise the ozone over most of North America, all of Europe and a chunk of Asia. Those of us who live in higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere will be exposed to even more harmful ultraviolet radiation without our consent. For space regulators across the globe, pollution or exploitation is not a concern, profit is. Like everything capitalists touch, by the time we figure out the consequences it will probably be too late. 

 

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