Spacing out: Will we allow the privatization of space to eclipse NASA and NRO?

credit: SpaceX

Who owns space? According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, no one. Yet, perhaps according to Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), it’s the billionaire with the deepest pockets. Just ask William Shatner, who boarded a Blue Origin rocket into space in October. One thing is for sure, the private sector has the edge on the government in space technology and capabilities. And if they own space, they own the future.  

Space used to be distant, ethereal, untouchable — accessible to the average person only through the lens of a filmmaker or a backyard telescope. Now, we experience space every day, perhaps without even realizing it. Use GPS to find a friend’s house and you’re relying on space. Shop for a home on Zillow? Also space. Match with a date on Tinder — you guessed it, space is involved. Rely on the government to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide for national security? That’s space.  

Instead of ushering us into “the final frontier,” the government has allowed huge private corporations to edge it out. Not only that, but NASA and the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) have even advanced private-sector capabilities through lucrative contracts.  Particularly unhelpful was the Space Act of 2015, which gave corporations and individuals ownership over the resources they extract from space. Proponents argue that private companies can reach farther, faster and cheaper than the government, and divvying up the mission is essential for maximizing American interests. But nowhere is the risk for privatization of national security greater than in space — and it already has begun.  

Although most Americans are awed by the recent triumphs of civilian flight into space, surveys suggest that a small majority of Americans still want the government to remain in control of launching military satellites. This is the purview of the NRO, which is responsible for providing the nation’s space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance architecture and supporting both strategic and tactical intelligence missions. But that small majority is stratified according to age.  

In fact, while 65 percent of respondents over the age of 55 think the government alone should launch military satellites, only 44 percent of respondents under age 34 do. The federal government’s benign neglect of the space program, combined with laws that aren’t sophisticated enough to defend the public interest and the private sector’s advanced technical capabilities, have all but assured a private-sector monopoly.   

The big problem is that the intelligence community hasn’t asked itself: What would space with a strong private-sector presence look like? While foreign adversaries have demonstrated both the intent and capability to wreak havoc on our space assets, the private sector here at home could be an equally dangerous, if somewhat unwitting, threat. Our track record with privatization hasn’t been meritorious — think monopolies, loss of democratic voice, environmental catastrophes, a lack of accountability, and reduced information sharing, to name a few. Now add a billionaire collecting intelligence information on China and you may have … well, a truly galactic disaster in the making.  

As more and more of the private sector enters the space race, space will be dominated by billionaires looking to advance their interests, rather than the interests of America. Space is a crucial sphere — it represents 25 percent of today’s economy — but it will be virtually out of government reach and in the hands of the wealthy few. (The United States of Amazon, anyone?)  

What stands between representative democracy and the wholesale privatization of space? Right now, nothing, because America is focused on a foreign threat, and NRO isn’t convincing anyone otherwise. For an organization that stepped out of the shadows over 30 years ago, it has done little to publicly demonstrate its abiding presence and worth. And this persuasion is imperative to understanding the danger posed by a continued explosion of private industry, unmatched by government resourcing. 

NRO has spent over six decades providing space-based intelligence in support of U.S. military capabilities. It has supported worldwide disaster relief operations, such as those caused by the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. NRO also provides unclassified, publicly available imagery for environmental research, and has developed technologies used to detect and fight breast cancer. But it can’t seem to find its way out of the secretive black hole it dug itself into during the 1960s Cold War.  

NRO needs to do some soul-searching and lead the discussion on space privatization within the intelligence community. Then it needs to make all of those findings public, as much as it can. This is a conversation with compelling implications for the future of our nation. The American public deserves to understand what’s at stake and to be privy to a transparent strategy for averting the most serious of consequences, if that even remains a possibility.  

Deb Pfaff, Ph.D., is an associate professor of research with the Ann Caracristi Institute for Intelligence Research at the National Intelligence University (NIU). She has 20 years of government service, 17 with the intelligence community. Prior to the NIU, she served as an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Tags Blue Origin Elon Musk Jeff Bezos NASA National Reconnaissance Office Privatization Richard Branson SpaceX Virgin Galactic William Shatner

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