SpaceX Falcon launch

The SpaceX mission and why it worries me

4 minutes to read
Column
Jan Blommaert
03/06/2020

The day SpaceX replaced NASA

We should mark May 30, 2020 in our diaries as a historic moment, the day when commercial space travel officially took off. It was on that day that a Falcon 9 rocket was launched from NASA's Cape Canaveral base, carrying two American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The Falcon 9 rocket is manufactured by SpaceX, a private company co-founded by Elon Musk.

Rockets are massively expensive machines; the science and technology involved in manufacturing and operating them are monumental, and so are the costs of rockets and the space programs for which they are put to use.

Which is why this moment is historic: even if the transport of astronauts to the ISS has become routine, it was never done by means of a privately owned and operated rocket. Rockets are massively expensive machines; the science and technology involved in manufacturing and operating them are monumental, and so are the costs of rockets and the space programs for which they are put to use. Only states and state-sponsored institutions were capable of concentrating the resources required for such huge programs, and until May 30, 2020, all astronauts entered space by means of rockets operated by state organizations such as NASA in the US and Roscosmos in Russia. SpaceX, a private corporation, now puts its foot next to those of NASA and its handful of peers.

Such a great moment!

In the US, the SpaceX launch was cause for considerable joy. The event was attended by president Trump and broadcasted live by most of the US (and global) media. NASA senior officials sounded as if they were over the moon (pun intended), and Elon Musk looked unreservedly happy as well. Yes! After an interval of several years, American astronauts could start their journeys into space from American soil again, using an American-built device.

Since the Space Shuttle retirement in 2011, NASA had to rely on its Russian partners for transport of staff to the ISS. So what SpaceX offered on May 30 was the repatriation of the American space program, if you wish. And in Trump's America, events such as these are presented as the stuff that Makes America Great Again. Such events are welcome, certainly on a day when more than 21,000 new COVID-19 patients were registered across the US, and violent riots were raging in more than 20 American cities after the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed during an arrest procedure by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. The SpaceX-NASA event of May 30, 2020 should have clearly been an feelgood moment for Americans. It is doubtful that it achieved that effect.

Causes for concern

There are other, less immediate reasons why one may wish to pause and reflect somewhat critically on the phenomenon of SpaceX - a private company, remember, capable of building a kind of equipment that used to be under exclusive control of states, their leaders, their administrations and their budgets. Even more, rockets used to be top secret projects because of the military applications they inevitably offered. The huge rockets that brought men to the moon were also capable of delivering nuclear weapons anywhere on earth; their successors - including SpaceX's medium-range Falcon 9 rockets - are the vehicles for bringing military satellites in space.

SpaceX has acquired the power to design, plan, produce, make available and deploy things that used to belong firmly to the strategic infrastructure of states.

So what we have here is a private corporation entering a zone of activities that used to be within the monopolies of state power. SpaceX appears to have access to the kinds, and amounts, of resources only states used to have access to: from advanced forms of knowledge, access to specific material resources and equipment, to vast amounts of money. Here, we see how a private corporation enters a scale-level of activities previously only accessible to states, and we see how it effectively pushes states out of that region of activities. This is a power issue: SpaceX has acquired the power to design, plan, produce, make available and deploy things that used to belong firmly to the strategic infrastructure of states.

SpaceX and its rockets are not the only example of this power phenomenon - private corporations entering, and capturing, zones of activity previously held by states and their institutions. Telecommunications are early examples, as are crucial infrastructures such as railways, airports and harbors - all of which are now privately owned and operated. 

From SpaceX to Google

But it is in the field of information, intelligence and security that perhaps the most disturbing examples occur, and many of them have been amply documented here on Diggit Magazine: the phenomenal power of Google, Facebook and other large social media providers in the field of data and data surveillance, and the endless issues of privacy, security and safety these new forms of power entail. Google has access to far more information than any government agency, including the most advanced and best resourced intelligence services. Like NASA, intelligence agencies have to collaborate with private corporations in order to get access to data needed for security purposes.

We see power shifts: state monopolies on highly complex and sensitive activities, requiring vast amounts of sophisticated resources, have shifted to private corporations.

Here, too, we see power shifts: state monopolies on highly complex and sensitive activities, requiring vast amounts of sophisticated resources, have shifted to private corporations. That means that they are largely free of public control, and that they are for-profit, they are commodities that do not exist because of their value for - say - democracy, public health or social equity, but because of their economic value.

I suppose that this tendency is irreversible, the more since I observed the intense joy of NASA officials as well as of president Trump when the Falcon 9 was launched from Cape Canaveral. It's considered a good thing, I notice, that private corporations have access to resources equivalent, if not superior, to those of state governments, to such an extent that states can be pushed in the position of customers for goods and services that used to be exclusively theirs as producers. This also means that the owners of such corporations - Elon Musk, for example - have access to forms of power previously exclusively accessible to publicly controlled state institutions and state leaders. 

Whether that aspect of the change we are witnessing is good or bad is a question we should at least raise, think about, and discuss.