“I look forward to a day when the global efforts of exploration will enable us to explore even more mysteries of the universe,” wrote NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Jr. in an email to the HPR, reflecting on the recent conclusion of the successful Cassini mission at Saturn.
Cassini was launched in 1997 on the Titan IVB rocket built by aerospace behemoth Lockheed Martin, a result of one of the many lucrative government contracts that Lockheed has built its business on. Had it not hitched a ride on Lockheed’s rocket, Cassini would not have been able to discover the plumes of Enceladus, the rivers of Titan, or the hurricanes at Saturn’s poles. Cassini is, in many respects, a prime example of the constructive relationship between scientific exploration and commercial space interests.
Despite this continued constructive relationship, however, there remains a question as to whether or not regulation will have to mitigate harmful competition between the two in the future.
The commercial space industry currently maintains an unfalteringly optimistic outlook on the relationship. In a recent interview with the HPR, Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, described this relationship as a “healthy competitive position,” insisting that the science and commerce “can be very complimentary.” Stallmer points to the historical successes of shared technology, highlighting the miniaturization of satellites—which is now picking up pace in civil, defense, and commercial space—as demonstrative of the mutually advantageous nature of the two sectors. Thus, when asked about the inevitable rise in regulation for the future of commercial space, Stallmer said that he hopes it will be a “gradual evolution.” Lightfoot, representing the interests of scientific exploration, concurs with the collaborative vision espoused by the commercial space industry: “It will take the efforts of governments, commercial companies, and international partners working together toward a common vision of exploration,” he explained.
Still, while this proposed cooperation certainly is an attractive vision, it might fail to capture the subtle differences between exploration and commercial goals that could lead to conflict. In a recent paper submitted to Research Policy, for example, Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, argues that while it is common to assume that shared technological goals will preserve this constructive relationship, this “healthy competitive position” will soon deteriorate into fierce competition. A lucrative commercial asteroid sampling mission that incidentally altered the orbit of a known asteroid and made it near-impossible to discover again, would, for example, cause the exploration community to lose valuable scientific data. Likewise, the construction of a radio telescope on the Moon’s lucrative peaks of eternal light would restrict the potential for commercial lunar operations to operate continuously on solar power.
Regulation may therefore be necessary to work out these disputes before they occur, as Jack Burns, a professor at University of Colorado Boulder and former member of President Trump’s NASA transition team, maintained in an interview with the HPR. According to Burns, certain regulation could appropriately mitigate future competition between exploration and commercial interests while not impeding the continual development of public-private partnerships. “Where we are in the development of commercial space is very similar to where the airline industry was in the 1920s,” articulated Burns; just as the government once awarded contracts to airline companies to deliver mail, NASA has been continually expanding its public-private partnerships, from ISS resupply missions to software for flying cars. Burns sees these investments as crucial for helping the commercial space industry grow and for reducing financial strain on NASA, since, “[a]t the present time, the goals of NASA and the science and exploration communities [are] the same as the commercial firms.”
When such goals inevitably come into conflict, however, Burns asserts that the “benefit of all of humanity,” rather than the sole interests of commercial or scientific ventures, must be prized above all.
Like Elvis, Burns therefore believes that in the future, regulation may be necessary to preserve the interests of scientific exploration. “Certainly regulation is going to have to be there,” Burns expounded. “It’s part of human nature.” The open question, then, is what that regulation might look like.
Image Credit: Flickr/Kevin Gill