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Private-Public Collaboration on Space Exploration

In the past, we seem to have operated under the assumption that governments would drive space exploration. That’s changing — a fact we should embrace. The most notable form of space law is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This landmark treaty was established to foster the free use of outer space by all countries, promote accountability, prohibit outer space from being weaponized and prevent any country from claiming sovereignty over any outer space body. 


However, the treaty has one big problem: it fails to address the role of private corporations in space regulation. It almost seems to operate under the assumption that space exploration is solely the realm of government. Though that assumption may please China — more on that later — it’s a hindrance to the rest of the world.


Private companies have played a big role in space exploration in recent years. They currently make up the largest economic stake in outer space activity and are receiving lots of investments, with SpaceX holding 60% of the global launch market.


Companies like SpaceX are leading the private sector’s push into the famed ‘final frontier.’ According to Time Magazine, “SpaceX scored its first big headline in 2010 when it became the first private company to launch a payload into orbit and return it to Earth intact — something only government agencies like NASA or Russia’s Roscosmos had done before.”


Giving private companies the regulatory assurance to further explore space will boost the collaboration between public and private powers, potentially leading to significant scientific discoveries. The Outer Space Treaty should be expanded to further enable private sector involvement. 


We’re already seeing trends toward public and private partnerships. Just recently, NASA partnered with seven U.S. companies to explore space capabilities. These companies include Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation, Sierra Space Corporation, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, Special Aerospace Services, ThinkOrbital Inc. and Vast Space LLC. NASA hopes these collaborations will spark innovation in space exploration, benefitting both the private and public sectors.


Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA has stated, “It is great to see companies invest their capital toward innovative commercial space capabilities, and we’ve seen how these types of partnerships benefit both the private sector and NASA.” If NASA, the world’s largest outer space agency, has encouraged private-sector collaboration, the benefits must be high.


However, some countries have shown their outright discontent with private sector involvement. China does not believe that the private sector should have any role in outer space exploration. The CCP argues that private-sector collaboration gives certain countries an unfair advantage.


China does not have a private space sector strong enough to compete with America. China’s opposition to the entry of the American private space sector is strategic, potentially giving the country time to catch up to the technology level of U.S. private and government space agencies.


Unless we want to postpone scientific advancements to satisfy China’s strategic whims, we should continue to normalize private-sector collaboration in space exploration. There’s a lot of potential in this rising industry, and the US should move to codify a proper relationship. We should embolden the private world to continue innovating in conjunction with the resources of the public sector. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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