SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 230 July-August 2019

Mars awaits: capitalism’s designs on the cosmos

A second space race is underway, with China, the United States and other powers competing over internet satellite networks, orbital tourism, and even asteroid mining. JAMES IVENS examines the possibilities and pitfalls in the capitalists’ vision of space exploitation.

Fifty years ago this July, Neil Armstrong stepped off the Apollo 11 lunar module, the first human to stir the 4.5 billion-year-old moon dust. His timeless words were a celebration of the endeavour of all humanity. His commanders’ purpose in that “one small step”, however, was bolstering the prestige of the capitalist system which ruled two-thirds of humanity in its struggle with Stalinism’s planned economies which ruled the rest.

In 2019 the Earth is once more too small to contain the tumult of world relations. Today’s contenders, however, are not two incompatible social systems writing propaganda in the stars, but rival imperialisms scrambling for dominance in a multipolar world. The propaganda value of planting a flag on the moon is not a goal in itself anymore, although that is part of the motivation for the emerging powers that have yet to do it. More than that, they see the moon as a staging post for exploiting and industrialising near space.

The OECD has valued the world space economy at $330 billion – equivalent to the 36th largest GDP – and projects it will to grow to $550 billion by 2030. A half-dozen runners and riders, at least, are vying for it. China aims to have an orbital space station by 2022 and put the first taikonauts on the moon in 2025. This year it achieved a world first with its robotic mission to the ‘dark’ side, the first step towards its proposed automated moon base.

Nasa’s underfunded Artemis Project bluffs about gazumping the China National Space Administration with another moonwalk by 2024. The US does have a head-start in the International Space Station, however. Russia, truculent chief collaborator on the latter, aspires to independence for its space interests and promises a lunar colony, but lags well behind the US and China.

Narendra Modi last year announced a first manned mission for 2022, and India plans a space station by 2030. Israel oversaw the world’s first privately-funded moon launch in April, although its proof-of-concept lander was totalled when it crashed into the Sea of Serenity. Even the UK government is developing three ‘spaceports’ in Britain to start operation in the 2020s, aimed at private satellite and tourist launches. It estimates these will be worth £3.8 billion to the British economy over the next decade. Those familiar with the record of Chris Grayling, overseeing developments in his role as transport secretary, may question their viability.

Technological advances have corporations and investors looking up, seeing the profit potential in satellites, near-Earth tourism, and mineral extraction. Individual capitalists like Elon Musk even grandstand about Mars as an answer to ‘overpopulation’ and environmental crisis on Earth. Obviously, colonising Mars is not the focus of any realistic commercial or state activity. Quite apart from the distant prospects for technical capability, any vision of a gleaming future for humanity in space is economically prohibitive on the basis of private profit. Musk is an inveterate huckster, and he and his co-conspirators are no doubt trying to tap the seductive power of dazzling utopias and grand plans in an era of capitalist crisis and short-termism.

With state programmes, too, some of the more fantastic goals are bluster. But sci-fi showboating aside, the 21st century space race is real, and has three key dimensions: geopolitical manoeuvring, stitching up the Earth’s dwindling new markets with satellites, and early indications of a rush to claim orbital mining rights.

Geopolitics and cosmopolitics

It’s now one year since Donald Trump proposed a sixth branch of the US military, the ‘Space Force’, provisional motto: ‘Mars awaits’. Like Trump’s many exotic pronouncements, there was more than a little headline-courting in this, and it was unclear when (or if) the force would materialise. On 13 June, however, the House Armed Services Committee voted to create it – renamed the Space Corps, under the aegis of the air force rather than an autonomous branch. If approved, it will for now be more of a reorganisation of disparate space defence specialists than a serious expansion of personnel and funding. Nonetheless, it is material circumstances, not just glitzy publicity stunts, that have driven this change.

The US ‘victory’ in 1969 and the huge costs of defence initiatives killed the first space race. Nasa refocused onto scientific research and, in 1986, Congress defunded Ronald Reagan’s flamboyant ‘Star Wars’ anti-nuke project. In fact, Star Wars lasers – mounted on aircraft, not spacecraft – did not finally succeed in intercepting a test missile until 2010.

Renewed US military attention on space is, in part, an extension beyond the atmosphere of renewed geopolitical tensions. The US ruling class can only dream of returning to the monolithic global dominance it enjoyed after the implosion of Stalinism, but, given the projected multibillion-dollar markets, making a play to become the policeman of outer space is perhaps characteristic.

China’s regime, meanwhile, aspires to rival the US as world statesman. Trump’s erratic administration has given Xi Jinping openings on several fronts, and space is one. Inseparable from this is Beijing’s effort to rise through the global value chain, shifting its economy from low-value extraction and component manufacture to high-value end-product assembly and technical services.

To this end, China’s theft or alleged theft of US intellectual property is an important aspect of the present trade war – not least control of technologies related to the roll-out of the next generation of mobile internet, 5G. This has the potential to enable $12.3 trillion of global economic output, reckon analysts at IHS Markit. On 5 June, China successfully launched its first satellites equipped for the ‘Ka-band’ frequencies used by 5G internet.

Beijing is entering the race some way behind Washington. Funding for Nasa’s civilian programme is $21 billion this year, and the military space budget brings the total US public spend to more than twice that. By comparison, China’s space budget was just $8.4 billion in 2017, according to OECD estimates. Nonetheless, Nasa funding is about half its 1966 peak in adjusted dollar terms. Just $5 billion of its annual budget is earmarked for manned missions, for example, which the agency acknowledges is insufficient to hit its 2024 moonwalking target. Moreover, Beijing’s exploitation agenda is far more focused than the wide-ranging science and defence portfolios prioritised in Washington.

Another central difference in the second space race is the type of player. Space’s economic potential and neoliberalism’s cannibalisation of the public sector have transformed the position of the private sector. In the 1960s, its sole contribution was in parts and contractors, a facilitator of the US state space programme. Today, state infrastructure is a platform for the private space programme.

The state can let billionaire rocket-men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos take more of the capital and opinion risks, while still laying international claim to the kudos of their successes. Of course, space firms rely heavily on publicly developed tech and state subsidy to establish themselves, and the public purse stands to gain little directly if they succeed. But the logic of the market is clear, and Trump has pursued a policy of steering Nasa in this direction.

Yet changing the course of sprawling institutions can prove difficult, especially if they are subject to neither direct market forces nor democratic workers’ control. It took Nasa until 2007 to adopt the metric system, for example, and reports suggest that Trump’s culture shift has not taken yet. It may still, but US capitalism may also need to restructure its space agency – if it is serious about commercial space.

As for Russia, rumours suggest that Moscow’s space agency, Roscosmos, is preparing to transfer its partnership from Washington to Beijing. This would fit Russia’s growing interdependence on Chinese trade, intensified by the US-China trade war. Each strengthening of that link could make it a more attractive prospect for investors seeking access to Chinese markets. It would also resolve the contradiction of having to cooperate with the US in orbit while prosecuting proxy wars for influence against US imperialism’s interests in the Middle East and Ukraine.

In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example, Barack Obama imposed economic sanctions in 2014. Vladimir Putin snapped back by threatening US access to Russian launch sites, vital for reaching the International Space Station, and this was met with further US retaliation.

Modi’s Hindu nationalism drives his ambitions, and is matched by India’s competitors. Just two months after Modi, Pakistan’s government announced a first manned space flight for 2022 – backed by China. Beijing has territorial disputes with India and its allies, and competes for influence over smaller South Asian economies.

On top of the tensions with China, Modi and Trump are now engaged in a tit-for-tat tariff battle. Meanwhile, India sees its space programme as competing with China and the US for the commercial launch market, with lower costs than both and less perceived security risk than the former. Both struggles are reflections of a regional imperialism trying to elbow its way to the table between two competing global powers.

Around the world, lawmakers are scampering to create a framework for the future. In 2015, Obama legislated to allow US firms to claim mineral rights in space. Luxembourg emulated this in 2016-17, creating a $200 million fund to incentivise space firms to relocate. Britain’s Space Industry Act 2018 is aimed more narrowly at regulating satellite launches and space tourism, at this stage. But the big question is: who owns it? Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary and a member of the White House National Space Council, said: “We learned in the Wild West that possession is nine-tenths of the law, so getting there first is important”.

The existing international agreements date back to the cold war and were aimed at preventing the militarisation of space. Weapons are not allowed on the moon but, when it comes to mines, “the treaties are too vague to be really certain what the legal result is”, said Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law. Articles and symposiums call for an updated international legal framework but, supposing agreement is reached, who would enforce it? Conflicts seem unavoidable, and will be decided by the balance of forces on Earth. The second space race would play some part in determining this – to start with, through satellites.

Satellite states

Satellites are the chief area of space investment today. About a quarter of the $1 billion invested in US space firms in the first quarter of 2018 went directly on satellites, and almost three-quarters on launching which, in turn, is aimed almost exclusively at getting satellites into space. The remaining sliver went on ‘in-space industrials’: plans to mine and build things in orbit.

Satellites are a service market, mostly communications and imaging. Solar-power gathering has been under development since the 1970s and shows little sign of becoming viable. Communications applications are geared towards implementing 5G and exploiting the untapped internet market in developing nations. GoDaddy, the website hosting firm, estimates that over 50% of small to medium-sized businesses in the US do not have a web presence, rising to 70% globally. Facebook is another player, for obvious reasons. It closed its high-altitude solar-powered drone operation last year. Such drones were potential alternatives to satellites, cheaper and more manoeuvrable. However, they are less robust, and not suitable for carrying heavier equipment.

Firms like these, approaching the plateau of near-saturation in the advanced capitalist countries, need infrastructure to expand their market into the three billion people with no internet access. Facebook aims to double or triple its user base and hence its number of advertising targets and data sources. It expects 90% of its growth in the next four years to come from the global south.

GoDaddy no doubt imagines every basket maker and market stallholder having a smartphone in their shack to take orders from their personal website. Perhaps more likely is that vulturous big firms will find some way to bring gig economy platforms into agriculture and piecework. All-hours labour and Uber’s ‘dynamic’ pricing systems have obvious benefits for big buyers – not for small producers, of course.

For the moment, the Economist reports that web use in developing nations is geared more towards streaming entertainment. On that basis, these new markets are immediately proving limited due to the minimal purchasing power of their consumers, and scant availability of consumer goods to advertise to them anyway. Nonetheless, some increases in local economic activity may be possible due to isolated businesses in developing countries finding access to wider markets. This is reliant on sufficient infrastructure – China’s Belt and Road and Amazon’s logistics empire expansion, for example, are yet to catch up.

The main benefits of these would not accrue to small producers in developing nations, but imperialism’s web, tech and logistics firms. There and in the richest nations, the race is about wringing the last few drops from finite markets. The same is true for the many exciting applications of satellite imaging. Crop, pipeline and supply-chain surveillance – of your own stock and your competitors’ – is a developing subscription service already provided by several satellite companies. The benefits are obvious. One firm even measures the angle of the shadows inside Chinese offshore oil silos, uses it to calculate their contents, and sells the data to commodity speculators.

The full scale of this potential could only be realised by a democratically planned, global socialist economy. Imagine if all farms received free 24-hourly crop surveillance, for example. The systems capitalism uses to spy on its own economy to enrich competing spivs could instead facilitate growth and efficiency in production and distribution for all.

In the meantime, all these systems really allow capitalism is more intense command of existing productive forces and markets, not the summoning of new ones. SpaceX’s reusable rockets and the cheap, lightweight CubeSat technology have opened the door to myriad satellite start-ups – based mainly in the Mojave Desert, the ‘Silicon Valley of space’ – trying to capture this limited and capital-intensive market.

Some will have to go under. The obvious limitations of satellites mean this will more likely take the form of industry consolidation than the kind of explosion and collapse seen with the dotcom and Bitcoin bubbles. However, it is still possible that the colossal reach of the internet giants could see a serious, even catastrophic, adjustment as part of this. And the perspectives for space mining could be far more volatile.

Asteroid minefields

The global asteroid mining market was worth a modest $712 million in 2017. Projections by Allied Market Research have it hitting $3.9 billion by 2025. There are 17 prospecting missions in progress, and Nasa has awarded space company TransAstra a grant to develop a bee-like swarm of mining robots. Even major investors like Warren Buffett, Larry Page and Bechtel are getting in on the act. No asteroid mining start-up has yet achieved the operational and commercial confidence needed for a stock market launch, but terrestrial mining giants are also in the game.

In theory, the potential of mining space to disrupt markets is enormous. Some studies suggest it rains diamonds on Uranus, others project the cores of some white dwarf stars are moon-sized diamonds. Extraction is ruled out in these cases by atmospheric conditions or extreme gravity. But Professor Volker Hessel, a chemical engineer working on space ore extraction in Australia, notes: “Asteroids such as Bennu are closer to us than Adelaide is to Alice Springs, about 1,000 kilometres away in Earth’s near orbit”. This is a little facetious. You don’t have to reach the equivalent of 40,000kph to escape Adelaide for Alice Springs, or risk burning up on the trip back. Nonetheless, the point is that, in a matter of years, the sole obstacle in front of asteroid mining could be political economy, not technology.

US-based firm Planetary Resources claims – it has a vested interest, of course – that asteroid mining would reduce the cost of space exploration by 95%. It suggests that 16,000 near-Earth asteroids could be tapped, including two trillion tonnes of water for use in fuel and life support in space. The moon and near-Earth asteroids could be a way station, then, for deeper space exploration. But to what end? Capitalism must monetise this somehow.

The jackpot would be extracting minerals to get back down to Earth. This is impossibly expensive for now, but SpaceX and other launchers are making headway in that field. South Africa, for example, produced 70% of global platinum in 2017, according to US Geological Survey estimates. South Africa’s official figures say it has 335 years’ stock of platinum-group metals left at current production levels. But their relative scarcity, importance in a huge range of productive processes, and South Africa’s monopoly, all make them a key strategic target for imperialism.

In 2007, New Scientist reported that many Earth minerals were due to run out in 30 to 60 years, although there are centuries of aluminium, phosphorous and platinum if consumption levels off. We may find new deposits: geological science makes prospectors educated guessers, but guessers nonetheless. More importantly, the capital intensity of extraction tends to increase, hence profitability tends to decrease. Wars, trade disputes and even unrelated market fluctuations have the potential to disrupt supply, in particular of rare minerals and those produced as by-products of other mining.

Many major mineral applications have potential substitutes – at lower operational and financial efficiency in high-complexity technologies. But there are none so far for some of the scarcer minerals. Sudden shortages of the most critical minerals, such as platinum-group metals and ‘rare earth’ oxides, could even precipitate economic crises by shocking production of electronics, cars or steel.

In 2013, astrophysicist Martin Elvis made a rough estimate that, of the 20,000 or so near-Earth objects large enough to contain resources worth at least $1 billion, perhaps ten are viable platinum-group mines and 18 viable water mines. He noted, however, that his assumptions were conservative and small changes in parameters could expand these figures by orders of magnitude. Indeed, in 2015, the asteroid 2011 UW158 passed by Earth with up to 90 million tonnes of platinum in its core, as established by spectrometers – at a market value of $5.4 trillion.

Potential for wild speculation

The possibility of new technologies and business models making smaller space mines profitable poses another question. Could the potential for untold trillions of dollars in unexploited mineral deposits precipitate an extra-terrestrial re-run of the California gold rush? You can’t pan for platinum in space, so the phenomenon of mass migration would not apply. But what about mass speculation, and mass ruin?

The promise of riches from a monopoly on trade with the so-called New World drove the South Sea Company and Mississippi Company bubbles in the 18th century, based then on a thin layer of aristocratic and mercantile investors. Today, Bitcoin has attracted the widest popular investment of any bubble in history. There are around 22 million Bitcoin ‘wallets’ in existence, says data, and 5% of Americans – 16 million – hold Bitcoin, says a Global Blockchain Council survey. The 2017 Bitcoin mania pushed the cryptocurrency’s value to almost 60 times its 2014 price, according to Merrill Lynch. That was before it fell by 65% from January to February 2018, and cryptocurrency market losses hit $500 billion in the first quarter. The Bitcoin price fell 80% before year’s end.

The point, however, is that, while serious financial speculation can only be conducted by big capital, the information age’s instant media and investment tools have opened the arcane world of speculation to much wider sections of society, like the industrial age’s greater purchasing power did in the 1840s railway mania. If the more optimistic estimates about asteroid mining prove accurate, the ingredients for a bubble within the next decade are there. For now, there is no sign of one – not least because the technology is still not certain to get off the ground, so to speak.

The more obvious problem is that a massive increase in, say, platinum supply, even at the current steep capital intensity of extraction, would crash the market. Businesses would need either to make lightning raids and get out before the collapse, or carefully control the supply back to Earth to avoid sawing off the branch they’re sitting on. Of course, it could result in a transformation of this or that precious metal’s place to mass usage in the real economy, like the discovery of affordable processing did to aluminium in the late 19th century.

There would be immediate political consequences either way. This could include throwing mining nations into turmoil. Official South African statistics found mining responsible for 8% of GDP in 2016 – chiefly in platinum-group metals, where 41% of the mining workforce was employed, as many as in gold and coal combined.

For now, Planetary Resources limits practical application to mining precious metals for 3D printing of electronics in space. In fact, most of the larger space mining interests see extraction as a route to build space infrastructure for more satellites and tourism. The limitations of the satellite market seem clear. Initially, space tourism would surely rest on a thin layer of super-rich adventurers, but the asteroid miners press on.

A decade or more of stable development will be needed, whatever the strategy is. This is not the perspective opening up for a fractious and crisis-ridden capitalist world. Mars will have to wait, if the production problems and missed deadlines that have dogged Musk’s rather less ambitious goal of mass-produced electric cars are anything to go by. But a socialist world would eliminate much of the urgency, and could eliminate most of the barriers, to space exploitation – for the benefit of all, not just the space billionaires. Perhaps Mars awaits. But Marx awaits first.

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