Lost (and Found) in Space

Fresh off his trek to the International Space Station last May, mega-millionaire Dennis Tito reached yet again for the stars in an appearance before a U.S. Senate session. Tito argued passionately that ordinary citizens should be flying into space, not just wealthy individuals. By transporting artists, journalists, poets, opera singers, and educators into space, "they can bring back the experience I've had and relate it in their own art form," Tito said.

It's easy to find fault with Tito. For starters, lots of nonprofits helping the poor or the environment could find good use for even a small cut of his $20 million rocket fare. Tito's joy ride was an act of sheer hubris; talk about placing yourself at the center of the universe!

Yet the political ramifications of Tito's saga transcend any individual morality play. You may recall that NASA argued vehemently that an ordinary citizen had no right going up in space. To fund the Russian space program in so doing was unconscionable.

How the times have changed. When the Russians boldly shot Sputnik into space more than four decades ago it would have been inconceivable-not simply unconscionable-for a private U.S. citizen to make a personal choice of such magnitude. But today "national interest" engages in a tense tug-of-war with the flow of global capital. The winner in that struggle is not definitive; the embargo on Cuba being one example. Still, count on global capital to slowly eat away like termites on the walls built by nation-state ideology. That trend is accelerated in the as-of-yet unclaimed territories of space.

SHORTLY AFTER TITO'S trek, I paid a visit to a Washington, D.C.-based company called SpaceHab. SpaceHab is one of the three nongovernmental entities that have contracts with NASA to deliver commercial payloads into space. No surprise, the other two companies are Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The CEO of SpaceHab told me his company does not have near the financial muscle of its competitors, so it finds itself at a disadvantage competing to win NASA contracts.

Hence over the last year SpaceHab has entered serious negotiations with the Russian space program. The company's chief executive claims that the Russians are much easier to deal with than NASA officials. SpaceHab's own clients are based throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, and these companies couldn't care less about which flag adorns the outer hull of the space shuttle. The message: "Just get my payload into space, baby."

A rash of other private initiatives will compromise government control of space programs in the near future. A far out example-we're talking space after all-is privately owned Bigelow Aerospace, headquartered in Las Vegas. Banking and real estate mogul Robert Bigelow is pioneering a class of inflatable habitats to orbit the Earth. Each of the inflatable structures would offer space tourists and research enterprises two-and-a-half times the interior room of any single piece of the International Space Station currently in orbit. The company plans to have two flight-ready modules for deployment in space in 24 months. A fight with NASA over space rights is already under way.

Perhaps advances in micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology will lead to the most immediate impact on private space access. Today there are hundreds of satellites circling the Earth. Before long we can expect hundreds of thousands. The biggest problem with satellites today is their sheer cost. Typically the size of a refrigerator, a satellite can cost millions of dollars to build and $100 million more to lift its one- to three-ton payload into space by rocket or shuttle. Several commercial companies today are developing pint-size space probes with all the power of their predecessors but weighing no more than a few ounces. These baseball-size microsatellites will be fired into orbit by a cannon gun (though every fourth day Randy Johnson is expected to get his turn in the rotation). Imagine sophisticated communications, surveillance, and interstellar research available at a relatively low cost to private enterprises.

During this century I fully expect the beginning of space colonization, and in its jet stream will ride everything from industrial mining to elitist tourism. Look for corporate banners, not country flags, to fly over the real estate. n

David Batstone, a founding editor of Business 2.0 magazine, is executive editor of Sojourners.

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