As SpaceX says it intends to send a mission to Mars by 2018, does space travel now belong to the private sector?

SpaceX Rocket To Become The First Non-Governmental Vehicle To Reach Int'l Space Station
SpaceX is pioneering reusable rockets (Source: Getty)

Dan Lewis, senior infrastructure policy adviser at the Institute of Directors, says Yes.

Gone are the days when space was the playground of the Cold War superpowers. As launch costs tumble, it is increasingly a market democracy. Twice as many people have bought tickets for Virgin Galactic and Xcor as have been put in space by national agencies. SpaceX and Blue Origin, meanwhile, are racing ahead with reusable rockets. This is a pattern we’ve seen before. Many of the big airlines were government-owned when it was seen as too risky for private investors. Most have now been privatised. We are seeing the same transition in space transportation, and can expect routine earth-to-orbit transportation to move to private entities in the next decade or two. Governments will continue to be a big actor in space, particularly in the field of exploration. But space will look more like earth in its mix of public and private activity, and in that sense the private sector will own space as it does the air and sea today.

Will Lecky, economic adviser at the UK Space Agency, says No.

It is great to see the surge in private sector activity in space, though the public sector will continue to play a strong role in the future. Eccentric billionaires aside, private companies generally won’t have the incentives to run space exploration missions, or the big science missions that help us understand the nature of the universe. Closer to Earth, publicly-funded satellites help deliver information and services to benefit society, whether for weather forecasting, understanding climate change, disaster relief, or simply getting from A to B more efficiently. On the ground, publicly-funded research has a crucial role to play in developing and de-risking new technologies for use in space. The idea that it is the private sector “versus” the public sector is generally incorrect. Many successes have been driven and will continue to be driven by collaborative working between public institutions and the private sector. The public sector can also act as a long-term focused risk taker, making mission-focused investments and working with the private sector to help address societal challenges, both present and future

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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