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The billionaire race to profit from space

The race to conquer the commercial space market has lift-off, with Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson launching their business empires into new, uncharted territory.

Bezos’s Blue Origin has sent multiple flights into space, while Branson’s Virgin Galactic has targeted extra terrestrial tourism with its SpaceShipTwo project.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX continues to push past the boundaries of Earth, launching satellites and resupplying the International Space Station.

Musk passionately claims his intention is to make humans a “multi-planetary species”; Branson says he wants to “create thousands of astronauts”, while Bezos says he simply wants a new “adventure.”

But experts say the rekindled interest in the exploration of space may have more insidious intentions, with a lack of regulation allowing their practices to go unchecked as private companies win contracts to mine the moon for resources.

The practice has been named as “space-washing” – when billionaires market themselves as benevolent explorers, while masking their plans for the exploitation of resources on an intergalactic scale.

Hilding R. Neilson, researcher in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, told i: “There’s very much a wild west mentality of frontier and exploration. Like in North America a couple of centuries ago, there’s a gold rush – a free for all.

“We have shifted from an era of what we would hope for, and are more focused on exploitation, building a space station for the pursuit of capitalisation and commercialisation of products and manufacturing in space.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 9: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post via Getty Images, introduces their newly developed lunar lander "Blue Moon" and gives an update on Blue Origin and the progress and vision of going to space to benefit Earth at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Blue Origin introduces their newly developed lunar lander Blue Moon (Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty)

The privatisation of Space

A 1967 UN agreement called the Outer Space Treaty established that the “use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind”.

It was followed by the Artemis Accords in 2020, a series of arrangements between the US and other world governments – but Russia and China are yet to sign up, with Chinese-state media claiming the accords are a unilateral attempt to set the ground rules for lunar resource exploitation, while Moscow claims it favours US interests.

The 43 countries that have signed up are not compelled by law to follow the non-binding treaty.

It comes after the US passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015, which allowed its citizens and industries to extract, possess, own and sell any space resource.

This was followed by former US President Donald Trump signing a set of directives that shifted the burden of space exploration off the Government and on to companies.

Speaking of the directives in 2016, Mr Trump said: “Rich guys, they love rocket ships… that’s good. That’s better than us paying for them.”

Mr Neilson says that while no country can claim territory or own land on the moon under the Artemis Accords, “companies can create a safety zone around the material they mine – meaning other groups can’t interfere with it, which could lead to a de facto land claim on the region.”

Billion dollar contracts

Following the retirement of the national agency’s space shuttles, Nasa outsourced it’s moon landings to billionaire space projects.

The government agency has since provided the embattled Boeing approximately $3.2bn (£2.52bn) to continue manufacturing its Space Launch System (SLS) rockets for missions to the moon, while Branson’s Virgin Galactic won a contract to organise commercial flights to the International Space Station.

Musk won a contract valued at nearly $5bn (£3.94bn) for 14 fully operational astronaut missions to the international space station in 2021.

Two years later, Bezo’s Space Origin won a contract worth $3.4bn (£2.68bn) for Nasa’s planned third human landing on the moon – a mission to reach the lunar South Pole, where there is water in the form of ice in permanently shadowed craters.

Speaking of his moon missions, Bezos said: “The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we’d have unlimited resources.” In a speech at the Vatican in 2022, Bezos added: “Blue Origin’s long-term goal is to move all polluting industries off Earth.”

Experts told i that space industry mining of the moon for resources is still some years away. They also described the benefits of privatisation, including keeping costs down for wider space exploration.

Martin Barstow, Professor of Astrophysics at Leicester University told i: “There are great technologies being developed – Nasa and previous US government have wanted to push on commercialisation to bring costs down.”

Andy Lawrence, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, added: “In terms of the commercial approach, only Space X are doing serious stuff, but Bezos, Branson and Boeing have built very impressive rockets – outsourcing in space is a state of business for military, navigation and satellites.

“Bezos and Musk have quite grandiose ambitions; their heart is in right place but they’re a bit crazy.”

Mining the moon

More lucrative contracts have been divvied out to other space start-up companies. US firm Intuitive Machines became the first private company to put a lander on the Moon in February, with Space X’s reusable Falcon 9 booster used to aid the safe arrival of the craft on the satellite’s South Pole.

The firm now plans its IM-2 mission at the end of 2024, which will include an ice drill to demonstrate how it will be possible to extract water and potentially create rocket fuel from the lunar surface.

In 2016, Florida-based Moon Express became the first company to secure permission from the US government to land on the moon, where it plans to mine for water and other rare minerals.

Upon finding any remnants of rare minerals, it will send back images to a control station on Earth, where the team will then plan to send spacecraft to retrieve the rare minerals and return them to Earth.

SpaceX's Starship rocket launches from Starbase during its second test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, on November 18, 2023. SpaceX on November 18, 2023, carried out the second test launch of Starship, the largest rocket ever built that Elon Musk hopes will one day colonize Mars, while NASA awaits a modified version to land humans on the Moon. It comes after a first attempt to fly the spaceship in its fully-stacked configuration back in April ended in a spectacular explosion over the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
SpaceX’s mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas (Photo: Timoth A. Clary/AFP)

Meanwhile, China has claimed to have already discovered a new mineral on the Moon dubbed Changesite-(Y). It contains helium-3, which may offer a potential new energy source, triggering Beijing to launch three unmanned missions to the moon over the next 10 years.

Scientists are concerned about the potential environmental issues this can lead to. Mr Barstow said: “Mining on the moon is concerning, it’s a low-gravity environment, so dust can move around a lot more and risk polluting other parts of the Moon.

“It’s exciting from science point of view and it’s important work to learn how we can live on Mars, so they are starting with the Moon first, to understand how humans can live in these environments for long periods.”

But Mr Lawrence added: “Mining the Moon is an issue. While it hasn’t happened yet, the international community need to get serious or we will replicate the problems on earth on the Moon.”

Advertising space

With profiting from the extraction of lunar minerals still some way off, Space X has signed a number of commercial deals for the expansion of low-orbit satellites. Their uses range from spying for the US government, according to Reuters, to securing contracts for improving phone signals.

Experts say that outside of this revenue stream, it is difficult to profit from Moon exploration – or exploitation. This has led companies to explore new methods of generating income.

Musk’s Space X has partnered with company Beyond Burials, developing plans to send a “portion of cremated remains to space where they orbit the Earth for months or years (mission dependent)! for a cost of “$7,500.”

Families can track their loved-ones remains in orbit via an app, also sending pet tags or sand from a favourite beach. Other companies like Aura Flights allow you to send your pet’s ashes into space for £2,950.

SpaceX has also teamed up with California-based Astrolab and Group of Humans to redefine the meaning of advertising space, by offering brands the chance to place adverts on its jeep-sized rover to the Earth’s natural satellite.

“Brands can really stand out as a result of putting themselves into this situation where there is no atmosphere and limited gravity,” Rob Noble, founder of Group of Humans, told The Times.

It is not the first company to propose placing ads in space. In 2019, PepsiCo said its Russian subsidiary had agreed a partnership with the space startup StartRocket to project companies’ logos into low-Earth orbit, making them visible across vast swathes of the planet, before the plan was cancelled after activists cited concerns about pollution.

But possibly the most controversial aspect of space capitalism is tourism. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have already begun offering suborbital flights to civilians, with ticket prices ranging from a reported $250,000 (£197,000).

Mr Lawrence said: “The race to commercialisation by tourism is an error. It’s nonsense, they barely reach space; it’s a joy ride for rich people.”

Mr Nielson added: “We talk about exploration, but it is not the same thing as what we imagine in terms of benevolent science fiction – we need greater responsibility and governance from the UN to benefit humanity as opposed to capitalisation [for] the benefit of a few billionaires.”

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