SpaceX world-wide internet plan could launch private vs public space race

SpaceX world-wide internet plan could launch private vs public space race
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Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskMaking space exploration cool again Elon Musk: 'I support Yang' Hillicon Valley: GOP hits back over election security bills | Ratcliffe out for intel chief | Social media companies consider policies targeting 'deepfakes' | Capital One, GitHub sued over breach MORE’s SpaceX recently launched the first 60 satellites to test the concept of what will eventually be a constellation of thousands of satellites that are designed to bring high-speed internet to every corner of the Earth. When the constellation is complete, sometime in the mid-2020s, SpaceX thinks it can provide wi-fi services that are competitive with fiber optic cable in urban areas as well as to currently underserved rural parts of the planet.

Each satellite is small, equipped with a single solar panel, a krypton-fueled ion drive, a collision avoidance system, and the wherewithal to receive and send high-speed Wi-Fi transmissions. With SpaceX’s family of reusable rockets, Elon Musk can deploy Starlink relatively cheaply, for about $10 billion, according to one estimate. 

At the end of their useful lives, the satellites will use their ion thrusters to crash back into the Earth’s atmosphere, burning up, and thus preventing them from becoming space debris.

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The system would be a game changer for telecommunications and would provide SpaceX with an astonishing amount of revenue. How much revenue? A recent article in Next Big Future suggests that SpaceX could take in $40 billion a year, about twice the amount of NASA’s current annual budget. That number is comparable to what AT&T makes with Direct TV. What that extra shot of money will allow SpaceX to do is mind-boggling.

Even considering that some part of that revenue will be used to maintain and upgrade the Starlink system, Musk will still have a lot to play with to fulfill his more ambitious dreams, such as starting a colony on Mars. Going to the moon would be the first step, to mine ice at the lunar poles and refine it into rocket fuel. 

Moreover, unlike NASA, SpaceX will by and large not be answerable to politicians who hand out the money but apply conditions to funding and micromanage what the space agency can and cannot do. Currently, NASA is having difficulty persuading the Democratic-controlled House that it would be a good idea to pay a little extra money to land people on the moon by 2024. Congress cannot withhold money from SpaceX to stop Musk from going to Mars or back to the moon, for that matter. Current business-friendly commercial space legislation means that the government cannot stop SpaceX through regulatory gridlock, either.

If Congress continues to stonewall NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon, the United States `might find that the space agency will have been beaten back to the lunar surface not so much by the Chinese but by SpaceX. Those who think that the government has a role to play in space exploration may find this troublesome. Others, with a more libertarian bent, will likely consider the scenario of a private versus public space race a feature rather than a bug.

Of course, a cash-rich SpaceX conducting its own space program will not escape the notice of Elon Musk’s main business rival, Blue Origin’s Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosThe Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape Making space exploration cool again Sanders campaign to launch own 'newsletter with scoops' MORE. Bezos has his own ambitious space dreams, involving free-flying space colonies built with lunar and asteroid materials. He also already has a cash cow to finance space ventures called Amazon.com. A private race to the moon, Mars and beyond is something not envisioned outside the pages of science fiction, until now.

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All in all, having NASA back to the moon with private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin as partners rather than competitors would be a much better scenario. Having a federal government presence on other worlds will provide not only a civilizing influence that includes protecting scientists’ interests as well as commercial players, it could provide a shield against encroachment by possibly hostile countries, such as China. The Chinese would not like sharing the moon with western businesses, NASA being present as well would restrain China from doing much about its dislike of sharing. 

Of course, if the Chinese insist on being troublesome, hopefully, the Space Force will be available to make them think twice. Thus, government will not be an impediment to the commercial development of space, but a crucial part of ensuring it happens.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”