Commercial space exploration moved away from science fiction and closer to science fact last week when a private company based in Boulder revealed its plans to launch humans to the moon.
The announcement by Golden Spike Co. created a media firestorm and immediately raised questions — both ethical and practical — about what it means if anyone who can afford the $750 million-per-seat price tag can visit the moon. It immediately created images of a Wild West-style land grab for celestial bodies.
"Many people are concerned that space tourism is a Trojan horse for the eventual control of the moon, for a resources grab, using the billionaires to bankroll the startup," said Lynda Williams, a physics professor at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Golden Spike's leadership — which includes Colorado-based planetary scientist Alan Stern and NASA legend Gerry Griffin — spent their first 24 hours as a publicly known company fielding skepticism.
"The first line of criticisms is a lot of tongue-in-cheek about the 1-percenters," Stern said. "It's not about space tourism; that's not our model. That's the footnote market."
Stern said his company's target clientele will likely be other national space agencies, which he expects will use Golden Spike's services primarily for scientific purposes and national prestige.
"Think of these as camping trips; no one stays very long," Stern said. "There is no regulatory regime about (who can visit the moon); there is a regulatory regime that they can't claim the land for themselves."
The anti-land-grabbing statute is embedded within the international Outer Space Treaty of 1967, declaring that no country can claim outer space, including the moon, as its own. But the U.S., China and other nations refused to sign a subsequent Moon Treaty that expanded that mandate to cover private individuals.
"No one owns the moon," Stern said. "You can go anywhere; you can land anywhere. The 'Earth' doesn't own (the moon) either."
The Outer Space Treaty states that each nation retains jurisdiction over its citizens should they perform activities in space. So the U.S. would not only govern Golden Spikes' operations, it would be liable in the event of a catastrophic accident.
"Should the common U.S. man and woman, the 99 percent, pay for the costs and risks of the 'space happy' dreams of billionaires?" said Williams, who sits on the board of directors of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.
A report released this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office pegs potential federal liability for third-party claims tied to commercial space exploration at $2.7 billion.
"We need to engage in a national dialogue on the risks and costs of commercial space travel before private space corporations and their rich clients can take and make them at U.S. taxpayers' expense," Williams said.
Stern emphasized that Golden Spike isn't a group of wealthy individuals trying to make a name for themselves.
"We don't have a billionaire involved, so we think we are more commercial than the first space startup and the space community doesn't recognize it," Stern said.
But he's not opposed to the prospect of taking private individuals to the moon.
"I don't think there is an ethical problem with flying wealthy people, because they are employing U.S. aerospace engineers," he said.
While waivers could be required of space tourists to potentially lessen the taxpayer burden, a major dilemma would arise if a private company stranded its travelers on the moon.
"It will be hard for the U.S. government or for any government to turn their backs on these people who need help, because it will amount to a kind of letting die," said Ben Hale, an assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It's a real challenge that's not simply addressed by legal contracts or arrangements."
Other concerns bubbling over private space travel are that it will increase the amount of space debris and the potential weaponization and militarization of space.
Williams said that "whatever nation controls the moon controls the Earth."
"If you had a moon base with space weapons, you could control all the launches on Earth," she said.
Supporters of space commerce do not buy into the doomsday scenarios of the skeptics.
"Should we do this? Yes, because this is moving space exploration and space travel forward in a positive direction and transferring the risk, both in terms of prestige and in terms of financing, over to the private sector and away from the government," said Michael Listner, founder and principal of consulting firm Space Law and Policy Solutions.
There are large ethical questions when space commerce is spun out into a worst-case scenario. But Golden Spike's high-profile team gives it immediate credibility, Listner said.
The company's board includes space advocates and former presidential candidates Bill Richardson and Newt Gingrich.
"Given the cadre of people who have come forward from Golden Spike, they aren't just out doing this without any prior research," Listner said. "This sounds like they're really going to go for it."
Ultimately, Stern reiterates the fact that his company is not trying to establish any sort of base or large mining presence, or pollute the surface of the moon.
If his business model works and the industry takes off, he does recognize a future need for international regulation.
"There isn't a regulatory regime that covers the moon because there hasn't been a need for it," Stern said. "I think there will come a point where, like the Internet, it was unregulated when it was tiny, when it enters the economic impact where a regulatory body will get together."
Andy Vuong : 303-954-1209, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/andyvuong
Kristen Leigh Painter: 303-954-1638 email@example.com or twitter.com/kristenpainter