On April 25, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announced it was filing a formal protest in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims over an Air Force contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA). While ostensibly this protest is for the sake of more competition over contracts for public funds, Musk’s goals seem, instead, to be to maintain the flow of public resources into his company and others like it. In much the same way as private companies profit off of publicly funded university research (commonly called the neoliberalization of academia), Musk and other New Space actors are working towards the neoliberalization of spaceflight. Musk’s protest comes after the Air Force awarded ULA with a block contract of 36 rocket cores. The contract with ULA is part of the Air Force Space Command’s block-buy strategy designed to save money. Air Force Space Command commander Gen. William Shelton claims the service has already locked in $4.4 billion in savings. SpaceX’s suit challenges those decision over which the company is capable of competing. The courts could open for competition those decisions challenged by SpaceX. The formal complaint can be found at the SpaceX site, strategically named freedom to launch.
Elon Musk, President of SpaceX, argues that Air Force and other national defense contracts should be open to competition. Musk must have forgotten about the exclusive use contract SpaceX has with NASA for the use of launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. This contract was protested by Blue Origin on September 13, 2013 for concerns over the competitive process for awarding the exclusive contract. While it may be easy to point out Musk’s hypocrisy, to argue that this makes his argument any less valid would be tu quoque.
Musk has a point if we take his argument to be that exclusive contracts by the federal government are problematic. But how much better are so called competitive contracts? Well that depends on what you want to see out of those contracts.
Musk’s SpaceX is one of many New Space companies that are seeking entry into the contemporary spaceflight and space resource development markets. These companies could be described as part of a larger movement for neoliberal privatization, of which competition is a central tenet. The neoliberal argument of privatization is that the private sector is naturally more efficient than the public sector. This argument relies on the coercive power of competition. In 2003 Musk argued that “the way an industry improves is that new companies enter a market with a lower price or superior product. This creates a forcing function for the whole market to improve.” Competition is also closely connected to the neoliberal resistance towards state regulations. What Musk and other New Space companies seem to want to see, is increased competition through deregulation and privatization to improve the efficiency of spaceflight.
Although New Space companies advocate deregulation and tout the superior efficiency of the private sector, they are simultaneously lobbying for protective regulations and the allocation of public resources. Importantly, the industry cannot survive without both of these important connections to the state, much less operate more efficiently without them. Michael Gold of Bigelow Aerospace argues before congress in 2012 that “In order to enjoy the opportunity presented by commercial space the risk of regulatory confusion must be eliminated as quickly as possible.” Yet without regulations limiting the liabilities of spaceflight companies, they could not even afford to insure their launch vehicles. Even Bigelow has been extremely active in lobbying for regulations protecting property rights in space despite being illegal according to the Outer Space Treaty. New Space companies are also directly reliant on public resources, despite the claims of increased efficiency and cheaper prices. Often times, these prices are only made possibly by the use of public resources. The aforementioned exclusive use contract for launch pad 39A between NASA and SpaceX is an example of this. Other examples include Bigelow Aerospace’s plan to attach one of their inflatable modules to the ISS. Not only does Bigelow get the use of this multi-billion dollar, international public resource, NASA will pay them for the privilege! Additionally, NASA’s multi-billion dollar asteroid capture mission will have their targets selected by a team from Planetary Resources Inc., a company seeking to mine mineral and other natural resources from near Earth asteroids. The problem is not that the actions of New Space companies are contradictory to their public positions, but that their ostensible goals are fundamentally different than those which they are actually pursuing. Rather than increased efficiency, they are creating a space program that serves the financial interests of a select group of corporate actors without allowing points of intervention for a democratic citizenry. This is the same kind of corporate welfare seen elsewhere in the contemporary economy.
It is clear that the goals of these New Space companies are decidedly undemocratic, even plutocratic. Therefore if transparency and democratic citizen participation are goals of and for the space program, the competitive contracts which Musk vouches for don’t do the job. Uncompetitive block-buy contracts are, of course, no better. A space program that serves the needs of citizens rather than private interests will require an entirely different mode of operation that relies more on participatory decision making and is less technocratic, driven by experts largely on the payrolls of companies who stand to benefit a great deal from their decisions. So in a sense, Musk doesn’t go far enough. Not only should block-buy contracts be eliminated from the space program, but perhaps all space companies and their contracts should be open to public scrutiny before any resources can be dispersed. That would really make for a competitive environment.