Two years ago, I was at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico where Elon Musk first unveiled his plans for colonizing the Red Planet. The main message was simple—Get in, losers, we’re going to Mars!—and the details, like how anyone could be expected to pay the $200,000 ticket without becoming an indentured servant of the SpaceX corporation, would be worked out later.
After so many years of dreaming about space travel for the rest of us, Musk appeared to be making it a reality.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, SpaceX hosted its inaugural “Mars Workshop” at the University of Colorado Boulder. The conference was meant to underscore the company’s seriousness about its Mars ambitions and to lay the technical groundwork required to move hundreds of people across tens of millions of miles of empty space.
But you probably didn’t hear about it. The Mars Workshop attendees consisted exclusively of industry insiders and academics who were explicitly asked not to publicize the conference or that they were in attendance. Only two years after they were revealed, participating in Musk’s plans to shepherd our species toward Mars has become an invite-only affair.
This marks a stark departure from NASA’s communication policies and highlights the problems associated with the privatization of public resources. Following the end of the Apollo program, NASA made a concentrated effort to increase its transparency and actively engage with the public about its activities. In cases where official documents were not released, Americans had the Freedom of Information Act at their disposal to provide insights into the workings of the agency.
These sorts of checks are not available when it comes to SpaceX and other private companies. Whereas NASA publicly releases extensive documentation on technology development on its Technical Reports Server, SpaceX technology is private intellectual property. Whereas NASA keeps its Mars plans out in the open, SpaceX discusses its plans behind closed doors. Although SpaceX has explicitly said it wants to shape the future of our entire species, only a few dozen people were “invited” to comment on these plans.
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This is troubling because outer space is the last great commons and it is being handed to private corporations to do with it what they please. Space belongs to everyone, but private corporations such as SpaceX are not federally mandated to disclose how they intend to use it. The rest of us are condemned to find out after the fact, to have Musk’s vision of tomorrow grafted on top of our own. We are entirely cut from the conversation and thus lose our ability to take control of our collective future.
Before he very publicly exposed himself as just another union-busting, press-hating billionaire who gets nervous being in close proximity to the poors, Musk was able to couch his ventures in a humanitarian rhetoric that almost made it seem plausible that you could get filthy rich just by Doing the Right Thing. Tesla would end our dependence on fossil fuels; Boring Company would end traffic jams; Solar City would bring cheap and clean electricity to all; and SpaceX would turn our species into a multiplanetary civilization.
These days it’s a lot harder for Musk to pretend that he’s working in the interests of the greater good or that he even has a decent grasp on what most people would consider the greater good. But when you have so much money that colonizing another planet becomes a realistic possibility, what does public opinion matter, anyway?