While the West gets itself into a lather on a weekly basis about the evils of past colonialism is anyone paying attention to the new empire builders in our midst? Although their ideas for space travel often read like the pages of an Arthur C Clark novel, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have done little to disguise the colonising instincts of their space projects. Both have outlined competing intentions to mine the moon and put humans on Mars. And, with Bezos stepping down from Amazon to devote more time to his space venture Blue Origin, we could be witnessing the beginnings of a galactic power struggle - executed not by States but by corporations.
Bezos and Musk are far from the only billionaires to follow this route. The co-founder of Google Sergey Brin has been spending much of his time on Planetary Ventures - a Google-funded space exploration project which in 2006 took over a Silicon Valley airfield from NASA for the purpose of space research.
That's not to say that nations have given up on putting skin in the game. Indeed, Boris Johnson purportedly wants to make the UK's space sector a key part of his industrial strategy for post Brexit Britain. The government has somewhat controversially invested £405 million in OneWeb - a satellite project to provide nationwide broadband that it hopes will rival the EU's Galileo project. It's also backing plans to launch rockets from the Shetlands as soon as next year.
And yet these government backed efforts are rapidly being eclipsed by nimbler private ventures. Bezos's spending on Blue Origin ($1 billion a year) now matches that of India - a fast-rising player in the space race, with a reputation for affordability. Prime Minister Modi recently quipped that India's successful Mars probe cost less than the budget for Hollywood space blockbuster Gravity. Nevertheless, the idea that a corporation could outspend a country on space exploration would have been inconceivable a generation ago.
Both Bezos and Musk have been eyeing up the prize of universal satellite broadband for some time. They are currently locked in a space spat about who gets control over the bulk of earth's low orbit, where the satellites will be positioned. Blue Origin states on its website that ‘we are not in a race’. And yet Musk accused Amazon in a recent tweet of attempting to ‘hamstring’ his satellite project when it requested permission to orbit some of its satellites on the same plane as Bezos’s rival satellite network Kuiper. Kuiper’s plan is to provide global internet coverage by as soon as 2022 while Musk is aiming for 2027.
This scuffle over satellites may seem insignificant but whoever gets the gear up into space first will gain a sizeable stake in broadband provision. Bezos may boast about how his Kuiper project will meet ‘a fundamental human need’ but no one can deny that it's also very good business. Gone are the days of ships and navies; the conquests of our own era are digital - and powered by rocket fuel.
While Bezos and Musk do battle over satellites and reusable rockets, Japanese construction company Obayashi aims to build a space elevator using nanotube technology by 2050. As interest in space from corporate investors grows, ideas that were once fantasy now have a chance to become commercial reality.
As lucrative as space travel might prove to be for billionaires like Bezos and Musk, it's clear there are other motives at play. Bezos was five when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He is a self-confessed trekkie fan who cites the 1999 film October Sky as inspiring Blue Origin. He purportedly got the idea for the ubiquituous ‘Alexa’ from the calm, all-knowing computer on the Starship Enterprise. It’s easy to detect a tinge of this boyish obsession in his decision to concentrate on Blue Origin.
Musk too is a sci-fi fan and a voracious reader of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. There are strong inflections of the sci-fi not only in his rather fey sounding ‘Starship’ but in the vision he paints of a ‘space-faring civilisation’. The differences between the two mens' approaches, however, are stark. Musk is a born inventor. When SpaceX started he was the chief designer: ‘It was not because I want to,’ he has said in the past. ‘It's because I couldn't hire anyone. Nobody good would join.’ Indeed, hiring the best seems to be Bezos’s expertise. Until now he has had a relatively arms length relationship with Blue Origin. It is said he ‘moonlights’ for a day a week at the company.
Personal legacy also plays its part and both men are keen to portray space travel as an act of philanthropy. ‘Everybody who goes to space says they come back a little changed,’ opined Besos whimsically in a CNBC interview. ‘And they realise how beautiful this planet is and how small and fragile it is. Something that we can’t see when we’re down here.’
Musk too seems to acknowledge that many of his visions for space exploration could end up happening after his lifetime: ‘in terms of people going to Mars, I think this is potentially something that could be accomplished in about 10 years, maybe sooner, maybe 9 years. I need to make sure SpaceX doesn’t die between now and then, and that I don’t die. Or if I do die, that someone takes over who will continue that.’
For all the talk of safeguarding the future of humanity, whoever colonises Mars gains a physical realm, much like a country or a corporation. If Blue Horizon or SpaceX are the first to reach Mars, under whose jurisdiction does the planet lie? The notion of a corporate space state could be more than just pie-in-the-sky futurism. An Amazon government, anyone?