Is The World Ready for Private Space Stations?
Sometime later this decade, or perhaps early in the next one, the International Space Station will die. The end will probably come abruptly: a sudden failure of some crucial component perhaps, or the splintering of the station’s walls; a breach in the barriers keeping life and death apart. Astronauts will be forced to flee, the station itself doomed to fall back to Earth. When it does it will burn, heated to extraordinary temperatures by the atmosphere.
At that point the Space Station will have spent at least thirty years in orbit and cost at least $150 billion – making it by far the most expensive thing ever built by humanity. It is, surely, a triumph of civilization, a technological wonder as magnificent as the Pyramids of Giza or the Gardens of Babylon.
Things in space – unlike pyramids – cannot last forever. The environment is hostile, bathed in radiation and filled with debris and micrometeorites. Three decades, under such conditions, is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, it is far longer than anyone first thought it would survive. When the first components were launched, in 1998, planners thought they would only last fifteen years.
In the end that prediction may prove to be its undoing. Many of the components onboard were designed to last those fifteen years and little more. Pushing them to twice that time – as will happen if the station survives to 2028 – is risking catastrophic failure. The possibility of upgrades, or of replacing old components, was barely considered. Some critical components cannot be removed – and thus, if they fail, can never be replaced.
Time, then, to think of what might come next. Building a replacement space station would be mammoth task, one that NASA, at least for now, doesn’t seem interested in. Their preference is to focus on the Moon – and to that end they propose building a smaller station there. This – the Lunar Gateway – could act as waypost, of kinds, for astronauts heading to the Moon.
There is, however, one other space station under construction. China – long excluded from the International Space Station – last year placed the first module of Tiangong, a new space station, in orbit. Over time it will be expanded. Though it will never be bigger than the ISS, it might, by the 2030s, be the only remaining orbital outpost.
For America’s politicians that possibility is worrying. Some are already speaking of a “space station gap”, a feared point when America’s access to space is severely hindered by the lack of a manned station. They imagine a future where Chinese taikonauts – perhaps hosting Russian and European guests – own the skies, a constant reminder of shifting global power.
NASA has therefore come up with an alternative. Inspired by the success of commercial rocket companies, the agency now believes the time is ripe for private space stations. To help encourage this, NASA has started giving out cash to interested companies. One, Axiom Space, will soon have the chance to attach their own modules to the International Space Station.
Just as NASA now buys rocket launches from SpaceX, the agency may one day buy berths aboard private space stations. Astronauts could then perform experiments and test technology for a far cheaper price. A proliferation of commercial stations could be exciting – a chance to redefine what, exactly, we mean by a station.
Still, the idea comes with a catch. The age of commercial rocketry has made space easier to access, true, but it has also fuelled the ambition and wealth of some of the world’s richest men. Elon Musk, for example, speaks of his desire to colonise Mars and is spending billions on new rockets.
Jeff Bezos – who NASA has now paid to design a space station – has made a business out of flying the ultra-rich to the edge of space. Many have reacted to this extravagance with distaste. It seems all to easy to see the inequalities of modern society captured in one, out-of-touch rocket flight.
Private space stations threaten to heighten this inequality. The rich could escape our planet altogether; spending weeks on end in celestial palaces looking down on Earth. Such heavenly palaces would be inaccessible to most of us, a luxurious Elysium reserved for an elite few.
Orbital Reef, as Bezos’ planned space station is called, is envisioned as an orbiting business park. It will house up to ten astronauts, sent by whoever is willing to pay for a slot. That will probably include NASA, who have provided a hundred million dollars to fund the design. But visitors may also come from universities, from businesses and – most troubling – from tourism.
If Bezos is already willing to fly the rich to space – as he proved last year – he will certainly be happy to put them on his private space station. Doing so risks a backlash, a politicisation of space and a threat to the scientific benefits of exploring beyond the frontiers of our planet.
Already some are calling spaceflight a waste of money and time, of resources that could better be directed to solving problems back on Earth. Space exploration – especially when funded by organisations like NASA – depends on the support of the public. For decades this support has – with some ups and downs – been present. But the rise of the billionaire astronauts threatens this, and threatens the very future of spaceflight.
If we believe that reaching out into space makes sense for us as a species, then we must take this threat seriously. Billionaires have the money to make great strides in space, true, but the sight of them doing so reminds many of the inequalities of modern societies. Somehow we must find a balance; a way to make progress without allowing space to be seen as a playground for the rich.
Moving towards commercial space stations may make sense. It could certainly spark innovation and encourage novel technologies. But NASA must walk carefully. It cannot afford for those stations to become heavenly palaces reserved for a wealthy elite; highly visible signs of the inequalities of our societies. Far better for them to remain as wonders belonging to all of humanity, symbols of our progress as a civilization rather than a sign of its decadence.
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