Review: Space Capitalism

Space Capitalism: How Humans Will Colonize Planets, Moons, and Asteroids
by Peter Lothian Nelson and Walter E. Block
Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
paperback, 317 pp. illus.
ISBN 978-3-319-74650-0

There’s long been a libertarian streak among many space entrepreneurs and commercial space advocates. Some sought to avoid as much government influence over and oversight of their space endeavors, often as part of broader political beliefs, while others worried for a time that NASA could be a competitor—an unfair one, of course—to their private ventures, particularly in launch.

Those views have moderated somewhat in recent years, as some of those businesses saw NASA less as a competitor and more as a partner, customer, and perhaps most importantly, a funder. As NASA’s interactions with the private sector grow, with increasing use of public-private partnerships, the roles of government and industry in spaceflight, and when and how they should work together, is a subject worthy of examination.

You won’t find such an examination in Space Capitalism. The book offers a hardline libertarian view of spaceflight, one that attempts to argue there is no role for government. “We believe that an overwhelming majority of citizens will wonder if we have gone completely bonkers,” authors Peter Lothian Nelson and Walter E. Block write in the book’s opening chapter. That statement may be the most convincing one in the entire book.

The book, part of a series on “classical liberalism,” meanders through chapters on libertarianism in general, the role of the private sector in spaceflight, and chapters on various destinations in the solar system for (private) missions. (There are also off-topic discussions best described as diatribes, where they defend the use of “manned spaceflight” over “human spaceflight” in part by complaining about modern-day biblical translations.) The point of those discussions, apparently, is to convince the reader that the private sector is better suited to exploring space than government agencies.

“Apparently,” though, because the book never puts together a coherent, convincing argument. One of the book’s early chapters is titled “Why Privatize Space Travel and Colonization?” That would seem to be a good opportunity to put together a concise argument in support of their thesis, but instead the chapter discusses some early history of rocketry and spaceflight, alternatives like air launch and space elevators, and whether interplanetary trajectories can be treated as property. It’s unlikely even a reader sympathetic to their broader case would be won over by this chapter.

Of course, there is a lot of private investment in spaceflight, including wealthy individuals putting their own money into space ventures. That would seem like a strong argument for the authors, but in one chapter of the book they dismiss many of these individuals, largely over a lack of ideological purity. Elon Musk? He’s dismissed as practicing “crony capitalism”—a claim often used by critics of Musk’s ventures—for accepting government money and a lack of visible support for libertarian organizations (doing business with the government is apparently okay so long as one tithes some of that revenue to libertarian causes.) Jeff Bezos? He is also “hip-deep in subsidies” that make any free-market credentials he earned in the process of becoming the wealthiest person in the world “somewhat tarnished.” Richard Branson and Paul Allen also fall short, with the only person winning “very, very high marks” (primarily for being a global warming skeptic rather than any specific views on spaceflight) being Burt Rutan, who is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.

Such assessments might win praise from other hardcore libertarians, but seem unlikely to convince broader audiences. That’s especially true for those who see such businesspeople making far more progress in opening up space, with pragmatic approaches to working with both public and private sector customers, than libertarian debating societies. That shifting balance between government and business in spaceflight deserves a detailed examination and assessment of what approaches work best, an assessment that is lacking in the rigid ideological mindset of Space Capitalism.