Feb 2, 2021 - Science

Billionaire battles are shaping our future in space

Illustration of a top down view of Earth with two large stacks of money towering over the continent.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Amazon and SpaceX's scuffle about satellites shows how competitions between companies today are shaping humanity's future in space.

Why it matters: Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are influencing the push for humans to settle the solar system — from a city on Mars to large space stations in orbit.

  • Musk's and Bezos' goals aren't necessarily in conflict with one another, but as they seek advantages in orbit, critics warn of the risks posed by their bottom lines driving space exploration.
  • "This thing they're doing for society's benefit — there's a competition involved," Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told me.

Driving the news: Last week, Musk shot back at Amazon for what he sees as its attempted obstruction of SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation.

  • SpaceX asked the FCC to allow the company to lower the orbits of some of its satellites in its planned constellation.
  • But Amazon — which plans to launch its Project Kuiper satellites in the coming years — and other operators objected to that modification, saying it would interfere with their satellites.
  • Musk tweeted that it isn't in the U.S.'s best interest to hamper Starlink before Kuiper is off the ground.
  • "We designed the Kuiper System to avoid interference with Starlink, and now SpaceX wants to change the design of its system," Amazon responded in a statement. “Those changes not only create a more dangerous environment for collisions in space, but they also increase radio interference for customers."

Where it stands: This fight over satellite altitudes may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but the business models for both SpaceX and Amazon's space ventures hinge, in part, on the outcomes of these small battles.

  • SpaceX sees Starlink partly as a way to bring in money that might be used to fund other ventures, like shoring up the technology needed to send people and payloads to Mars one day.
  • Musk's company has also managed to get out ahead of the competition, with more than 900 Starlink satellites launched so far.
  • Project Kuiper, which aims to provide internet access to underserved populations around the world, is also a stepping stone toward Bezos' dream of "millions of people living and working in space."
"I think there's room for more than one constellation. The concern is, I think, more a rivalry in terms of getting access to preferred orbits," Samson said.

Context: Space exploration has long been considered a human endeavor that unites rival nations and is governed as a global commons.

  • Musk and Bezos' rivalry paints a very different image of what the future of space might look like: one that is governed, at least in part, by the bottom lines of companies.
  • And NASA is on board. The space agency is attempting to support private enterprise in space, to create a space economy based on businesses that buy and sell services.

The big picture: To critics, the biggest problem with Musk and Bezos' power in space isn't about them as individuals, but the pitfalls of long-term space exploration and settlement being driven by the capitalistic structure they represent.

  • Squabbles about satellites could grow into fights about fresh air to breathe in space, critics worry.
  • "If we don't take a radical shift toward really prioritizing labor rights, it's quite concerning imagining having a company or a government controlling the full life support system on a space station or a physical base on a planet," Danielle Wood, the director of the MIT Media Lab's Space Enabled Research Group told me.

But, but, but: That possible future still isn't inevitable, despite the power these billionaires hold.

  • Governments are still the primary drivers and regulators of spaceflight and exploration, and the U.S. is beholden to the U.N.'s Outer Space Treaty, making the nation effectively on the hook for Musk and Bezos' behaviors in space.
  • Space should be a place where everyone focuses on the needs of the broader community, "rather than the goals of particular companies," Wood said.
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