Tech, Now + Beyond

What happens when you can buy your way into outer space?

If only the ultra rich can go to space, it's as if no one can at all.

Here on Earth, we have a system where you receive certain privileges and human rights only if you can afford them.

And if you cannot, you can say goodbye to your education, healthcare, even your happiness.

And if this wasn’t enough, we might be starting to rebuild the same flawed system in space too.

Take SpaceX’s “moon mission” as an example. Elon Musk’s private space exploration enterprise is planning to send two paying customers around the moon by 2018. The price is a secret, but some estimate it to be as high as $175 million dollars per seat.

What happens when we make space exploration so wildly exclusive, in the interests of rapid innovation? For one, we short-change the human race. If, in the future, only the elite, the .0001% of humans have the opportunity to experience the world outside of ours, it is almost as if no one does at all.

NASA has provided this country with a tradition of government-sponsored space programs. While the agency does not send ordinary Americans to the moon, their voyagers are extremely well-trained professionals. This makes more sense than to send amateur rich people out into space with, at best a year of training, and a hope for the best.

Of course, NASA’s approach doesn’t make financial sense. NASA does not rely on external funding; with a government lacking passion for exploration, and in favor of pouring funds into other areas such as defense spending, the agency cannot compete with its private competitors.

As a result, a bastion of space research is now being eclipsed by companies that fund joy-rides for the rich. Some want NASA to step aside and permit the flourishing of the free market. Adam Minter on Bloomberg urges the government to accept that “the private sector will always have an advantage” in terms of lowering costs. This is the same logic used to argue for privatized human needs, such as healthcare.

None of this is to say that private space start ups should disappear. At their best, these enterprises fill in for NASA’s lack of funding through frequent collaborations, their importance shown by NASA’s blog dedicated to SpaceX.

Private space companies are not ideal, but they have proven helpful. Instead, the problem lies with how the private and public space exploration sectors are being positioned against each other. In this battle, the underfunded and bureaucratic NASA is no match. We cannot afford to let it step aside and be replaced by an entirely privatized space industry. We cannot risk having important research projects decided entirely on the whims of the free market and the personal benefit of the rich.

Also a problem: the perpetual underfunding of NASA. And under Trump, it’s not likely to get better.

Unless these problems are fixed, we are poised to enter a future where even outer space travel is divided by class.