North Star

Raining on the Starman's Parade: Why Elon Musk's space stunt was a bad idea

Starman in the Tesla car with the Earth in the background
SpaceX/GreenBiz collage
Who will retain the rights to the final frontier?

I realize this column is going to cost me my invitation to Elon Musk's Christmas party. And yes, of course, it was a cool meme: A cherry-red Tesla, with a space-suited Starman at the wheel, takes a spin around the Earth on its way to deep space, after being boosted aloft on the biggest rocket since Apollo's Saturn V.

I really wanted to love this story. I certainly admire the chutzpah and daring and hilarious madness of sending a sportscar into orbit, and then shooting it toward Mars. And it made a wacky kind of logical sense: SpaceX's new Falcon Heavy rocket needed a test payload, something that no one would cry over if it blew up. So Elon Musk, the World's Coolest Entrepreneur, put his car on top. Just for fun.

Nearly everyone I talk to loves this story — sustainability wonks, artists, business people, teachers, they all tell me I should love it, too. A discussion on Facebook made it painfully obvious that I was practically alone in having a few concerns. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Carl Sagan of our generation, seems to love this story: he showed the whole launch video during his recent speech to the World Government Summit in Dubai.

While the whole world seems to be applauding, let me raise my hand and float a counter-argument.

Sending Elon Musk's Tesla into space sets a horrible precedent. Space is the ultimate "commons" — an area that nobody owns, which means it belongs to everybody. (I'm only talking about "our" space, of course, namely the Earth, moon, and solar system, assuming there is no other sentient life on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, waiting to contest our claim.)

But few people realize that this commons, including the bits of orbital space closest to us, is less protected than even our own Antarctica. (In fact, for nearly all humans, space is a lot closer than Antarctica.)

And private companies have now seized this unregulated, Wild West moment of relatively unregulated space exploration to establish a new principle: "He who has the rockets sets the rules." I say "he" is on purpose, as these rocket folks all seem to be men. 

In a period of just over two weeks, two private companies — Musk's SpaceX and Rocket Lab, also an American company with launch sites in several countries — staged media coups by blasting something into space whose only real purpose was PR. Rocket Lab's "disco ball" eventually will burn up in the atmosphere, but not before twinkling like a fake star, taking up visual space in the night sky and annoying a great many astronomers over a period of months. Musk's Tesla, in contrast, did not stay in Earth orbit: Starman is heading to Mars (but will miss it, and zip on to the asteroid belt).

In purely physical terms, these acts of space-based advertising are pretty harmless, except for the fact that rockets are wildly polluting and all that. Undoubtedly, for some people, these stunts will serve as inspiring moments that remind them to think about our place in the universe, and perhaps even motivate some students to aim for an engineering degree.

That's all fine and lovely in the short term. What I am concerned about is the long-term. It has to do with legal (as well as global cultural) precedent.

In case you were wondering, there are laws about outer space. Internationally, our use of the great nothingness in which our planet floats — and also our use of the other celestial bodies floating there — is governed by a set of five treaties. Established between 1967 and 1984, they focus on what countries can do in space: basically, anything they want to, as long as it's peaceful and does not involve claiming ownership over anything.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (the official name is much longer) is the principal steering document, and it has worked well, for decades. It prohibits military bases on the moon or other planets, promotes international cooperation and obligates countries to help each other when missions go awry, among other useful provisions. By most accounts, it's been a surprisingly effective diplomatic tool.

But the treaty is all about countries; companies are a gray zone. According to the Outer Space Treaty, nation states have jurisdiction and control over their registered "non-governmental entities" operating in space. That includes corporations. But as everyone knows, big corporations are now global entities. And that's where I see trouble brewing. 

You are aware of the problems caused by ships at sea being registered to countries with lapse regulatory control (so-called "flags of convenience")? How about that whiff of corruption around tax-haven countries that provide investors with nation-state cover for internationally condemned financial practices? Imagine something similar happening in space — because that is increasingly likely.

Then there is the knotty problem of who gets the resources, if we ever succeed in harvesting them (such as platinum from asteroids) and bringing them back to Earth, as several companies actively plan to do. The legal status of such enterprises was less than clear under international law, so the U.S. Congress passed a national law in 2015 that basically said, "finders keepers." Whatever American companies can grab out there, it's theirs. Congress justified this move on the argument that the Outer Space Treaty does not forbid it.

In other words, Outer Space is the new frontier, and frontier economics, politics and cultural grandstanding are already taking hold (instead of Starman, imagine Buffalo Bill at the wheel of that Tesla). When "there ain't no law against it" is the prevailing attitude, private actors may do what they like, as long as their formally designated national government does not disapprove.

And many other dubious and undesirable things are not technically forbidden in space, things for which Musk's Starman paves the way in his red Tesla. Imagine that one of these new, inexpensive rockets carries a big satellite up into Earth orbit. The satellite deploys, spreads its massive wings — and becomes a giant corporate logo (take your pick which one). The logo is so large, and so reflective, that it takes up the same amount of visual space in the night sky as the full moon.

Technically, such a stunt — the idea has been kicking around since the 1990s — is not forbidden by the Outer Space Treaty. And I'm sure that a number of countries that are party to that treaty would be happy to provide the appropriate "flag of convenience" for an enterprising "non-governmental entity" that offers to provide short-lived advertising banners in low-Earth orbit. I'm also sure that if this happened, many of the same people now applauding Musk's Starman-in-a-Tesla would be protesting the visual pollution of a truly irreplaceable common resource: the night sky.

This SpaceX stunt undoubtedly will go down as one of the great advertising coups of the early 21st century. It's fun. It's cool. But other less fun, less cool stuff is sure to follow in Starman's precedent-setting wheel tracks. In fact, there's not a lot that can stop it from happening.

That's what worries me. And that's why I cannot join the applause.