Stellar or Star-Crossed?
Written by Aadesh Gupta and Data Visulization by Miliana Bocher
19:28:34 UT, October the 4th, 1957. The trembling of hands draws to a close as the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, commences lift off. Within 5 minutes, the Soviets had successfully sent the first man-made object into the earth’s orbit. 4 years later, they made history again by sending the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space. Since then, the US & China have sent their own crewed spacecrafts beyond the atmosphere, whilst over 80 countries have collectively launched more than 28,000 satellites.
To comment upon humanity’s technological feats often feels like a banality. When surrounded by endless streams of digitisation and industrial vigour, even the most remarkable of accomplishments can go overlooked. Yet space exploration remains as extraordinary as ever. With endeavours that aspire to explore beyond the earth, a lofty budget is a certainty. Valued at $546 billion, the global space economy dwarfs many nations in terms of GDP.
Satellites or Schools: Should We Be Spending on Space?
Debate often centres around the fiscal ranking of space research – Why spend on satellites instead of schools? Rockets instead of roads? Pomposity instead of poverty?
But these options aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, given the interlinking nature of economics, space research can be helmed to solve many developmental issues. For example, rural areas of Africa, Latin America and Asia often find it challenging to implement local fibre cabling and cellular towers, resulting in a lack of internet access. These regions are also prone to droughts and famines, which may become more likely given the effects of climate change.
Fortunately, space technologies hold the potential to alleviate these troubles. Remote areas can access the internet via satellites, which can also help to administer herbicides for farming. Capturing atmospheric data and weather forecasting are two other applications of such technology, which help to predict natural disasters and climate change impacts, thereby assisting development in at-risk areas.
Monitoring the sun and moon with satellites is of equal importance. In particular, studying asteroids with lunar satellites provides forewarnings of impact events, and examining solar activity allows us to track radiation capable of knocking out power grids. Even though such incidents are unlikely, their effects on livelihoods will be immeasurable and any ability to anticipate them is worthwhile.
Foul Play: How Corruption Hinders Space Exploration
Nonetheless, space budgeting is often problematic. With billions of dollars in costs and committees that lack scientific dexterity, space agencies are reasonably suspected of corruption, especially when the intrinsic riskiness and bureaucracy of the projects can easily hide foul play.
Roscosmos, Russia’s state space corporation, had 58 of its officials sentenced for fraud in 2019 when $170 million was lost due to embezzlement, bribery and the artificial inflation of costs. Furthermore, the year before had prosecutors uncovering a fraction of the agency’s $1 billion fraud involving other state-run space and defence corporations.
USA’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is not so immaculate either. America's industrial complexes have long plagued its government agencies. From the military to prisons, private incentives are deeply entangled with national interests, and space is no exception. Speculation about bribery by private contractors has lasted for decades: Doug Loverro, a NASA official, curtly resigned in 2020 when he was suspected of disclosing information to Boeing about the agency’s human lunar lander. Audit findings of unsupported costs and faulty materials from falsely certified contractors are other examples of malfeasance.
A Militarised Cosmos: Science as a Second Priority for Space Agencies
Still, corruption aside, a broader concern is the public sector approach to space. The US and Russia spent much of the post-WW2 period competing for superior spaceflight capacity. What spurred this activity, however, was a large accumulation of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Looking back at the success of Sputnik 1, the subsequent sentiment amongst the American public was of shock and apprehension. The Soviets’ advancement rendered President Eisenhower publicly incompetent, and the space race revealed itself to be enveloped by a larger arms race.
Fast forward and move east: The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) recently stunned the world with its two missions to the far side of the moon and sun; some may reduce them down to flag-waving bluster, but they’re undeniably impressive.
However, India’s unfavourable political geography has led to a degree of militarisation in ISRO’s technologies. A lasting history of instability with its neighbours, Pakistan and China, has put India in a satellite surveillance rivalry. Using space assets for defence like this may not be inherently problematic, but it’s concerning when one considers further implications; satellites become popular targets for adversary states, and additional military uses bring greater profits to suppliers, making it difficult to withdraw from this position.
Even though space is yet to be weaponised, tit-for-tat moves between rival nations will only push us further in this direction, resulting in the likely prioritisation of the military over more humanistic uses.
Astronomical Commercialisation: Growth in Space’s Private Sector
Private sector moneybags want their piece of the pie as well. 21st century entrepreneurship has brought us a number of space startups, namely SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. Some of their milestones include flying civilians to space and delivering cargo within low earth orbit. However, a tonal dissonance with research and development exists here too. The privatisation of space pushes free markets to an unmatched level of consumerism, with Elon Musk’s plans to colonise Mars and Jeff Bezos’ preoccupation with space tourism being two examples of this astronomical commercialisation.
Some may consider this a win. By letting space technologies escape the webbings of bureaucracy, this private sector growth may foster healthy competition and collaboration with the public sector. For instance, the International Space Station (ISS) engages with the private sector not only through usage, but also through research and cost-sharing.
Still, given the sophisticated nature of space, relying on faulty free market forces to allocate its resources is likely a blunder. In particular, the high entry costs of space infrastructure and equipment will likely result in the same misallocation issues seen in a natural monopoly. The consequent high prices and low supply make the private space market socially suboptimal.
Besides this inefficient resource allocation, there’s contention over whether space should be distributed between earthly entities at all. Being globally available and non-excludable, it’s difficult not to call space a commons, especially if the seas and skies are. Yet countries can’t seem to agree on this seemingly simple idea; the US has explicitly opposed this notion, whilst other nations like China accept it only through ambiguous labels such as “global public domain”. This dispute becomes even more worrying given the aforementioned militaristic motives.
Despite its immeasurable contribution to research and development, global attitudes towards space undermine its rewards, with corruption, commercialisation and concealed priorities being the major issues. It seems that the political and economic frameworks we’ve built extend beyond the earth. Space exploration, just like every other sector, can’t escape the stifling incentive structures of capitalist systems and political power dynamics.