POV: Billionaires in space

Katie Eckert, Copy Co-Editor

The scientific community has made leaps in bounds in the past few decades when it comes to space exploration. Now, the industry is booming with privately owned companies, while it has previously consisted of government-run organizations. Historically speaking, the richest members of human society have played an important role in funding the development of the arts and sciences. Is space the place for billionaires, though?

Some Seabury students find the idea complicated but inevitable, like eighth grader Mrin Shanks. “[Billionaires] have a right to spend their money however they want to,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s the right thing or that it’s ethical, but that we shouldn’t be stopping them from doing what they want with their money.”

Similarly, an anonymous seventh grader says that “[Government funded space science] is better, because it includes a lot of people instead of a minority.”

Senior Ryan Dekat has a stronger opinion on the matter. “Why wouldn’t we just send that money to NASA?” he says. “I don’t think space should be privatized or industrialized. The moon is not anyone’s to sell chunks of.”

On the other hand, junior Barrett Bartley thinks billionaire space science patrons could be beneficial. “Space exploration is expensive. Rocket fuel is hard to find and make… It makes sense if the rich people supply the funds,” he says. Also unlike Dekat, Bartley feels that land on other planets is fair game for these businessmen: “Technically speaking, if [Elon Musk] gets there first, there’s no other life there to say it’s theirs. Who’s going to stop him?”

The big, and potentially problematic, difference between government and privately owned aerospace companies is that one is a government supported agency and the other is a business that seeks to make money. Consider this hypothetical: a privately owned aerospace company discovers a cure for cancer on Mars. They then try to sell it for profit, whereas a government funded agency like NASA would have to share that information for the good of the people. Responses to this hypothetical were more unanimous.

“It could be better for everyone, not just in this country but in the world, to know . . . the findings,” says Bartley. 

Dekat feels the same.  “I feel like there’s an understanding that funding their own space mission is . . . spending money that’s not something for them. I don’t think it’s right for people to be making money off of space.” Therefore, both public and private aerospace companies should be obligated to share their discoveries.

Other students felt that requiring these companies to share their discoveries should not be mandated. “I would strongly suggest [the companies to share their findings], but they can keep it to themselves if they want,” says the anonymous seventh grader.

Likewise, Shanks believes it should be up to the company. “I think that’s up to their own standards and what they believe in, and not what I personally believe in,” she says. Shanks also does not worry about potential competition between NASA and privately owned companies. “Does NASA really need to compete, though? They are government funded, so any discoveries they make go to the good of the country. If SpaceX found a cure for cancer and NASA found it shortly after, they’d lose business anyway. If SpaceX can find it, then NASA and other people definitely can,” she says.

There are still other potential risks and values in having aerospace organizations not associated with the government. For example, they create more jobs, but could pose a security risk.

“[Security risks are] a very high possibility,” says Shanks. “They could start selling our information or giving it away to make money. I don’t see it as that big of a deal, but a lot of people see it as a violation of their rights.”

Bartley suggests government oversight to reduce risks. “There is value in having independent companies still do things for outer space,” he says. “Do I think they should be allowed to do these things without any interference from the government? Not really.”

Whether people feel it is right or not, billionaires are planning their next moves into space. Nobody has to be an expert on this topic, but it is a good idea to be aware of the issue, as it could go on to shape the politics of our future. For now, Seabury students remain cautious.