Patenting Stars and Extracting Matter from Space: The Coming Age of Cosmic Capitalism

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

On April 29, 2015, Blue Origin, the spacecraft company founded by Jeff Bezos, the founder and the CEO of Amazon, became the first company to launch a rocket into space, fly it back to Earth, and re-launch it. On February 6, 2018, SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, launched the Falcon Heavy rocket into deep space, carrying the billionaire’s electric car with a mannequin named “Starman.”

Ever since 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit, space exploration has been mostly carried out by government agencies such as NASA, Roscosmos, and the European Space Agency. While companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been involved in the NASA’s space program in the US as private contractors, the emergence of companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX signal the arrival of a new age of space exploration in which the initiative shifts from government agencies to private enterprises. Along with this shift will be the shift of emphasis from the science-motivated exploration of space to the profit-motivated search for celestial objects in space. In addition to Blue Origin and SpaceX, other companies such as iSpace, Moon Express, and Nanoracks are also involved in space exploration as capitalistic ventures. The idea of space exploration as capitalistic ventures was eloquently expressed by Musk, when he told at the press conference held after the successful launch of Falcon Heavy rocket: “We want a new space race. Races are exciting.”1

Bezos’ vision is to create a real space age and a real space economy, aiming for profitability by 2020 and market dominance by 2040. Bezos is confident that once space is safe and cheap, entrepreneurs will rush to create new businesses, for the abundance of natural resources in asteroids and comets can be used to produce products in space and send the finished products back to Earth. Moon Express, an American company, is planning to send a lunar mission in 2019 to set up a “robotic village” and bring back Moon rocks to Earth in 2020 for sale. And Planetary Resources, an American company, and Deep Space Industries, an American-Luxembourg joint company, are planning to mine asteroids. As for SpaceX, it plans to send a spacecraft to Mars by 2022, with an ultimate goal of colonizing it.2

With private enterprises entering space exploration, the stage of global capitalism has expanded to include the whole universe. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the age of cosmic capitalism has arrived, in which everything that is out there in space becomes an object of profit for capitalistic ventures, including a star. In a way, the coming age of cosmic capitalism was anticipated as far back as 1943, when the businessman in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince uttered these words: “When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before anyone else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.”3

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forbids claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies, but does not prohibit owning and selling stuff extracted from them. This means that, while the Treaty says that space’s use should be “for the benefit of all peoples,” there is no guarantee that those billionaire entrepreneurs will share profits they earn from their capitalistic ventures in space. Considering that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of rich capitalists has already become a big problem under global capitalism, opening up space for capitalistic ventures under cosmic capitalism may further exasperate the wealth divide between rich and poor—something we need to ponder before we are caught up in the excitement of the arrival of a new age of space exploration.

  1. As quoted in: Alan Yuhas, “The New Space Race: How Billionaires Launched the Next Era of Exploration,” The Guardian, February 9, 2018.
  2. For these and other companies involved in space exploration, see: Benjamin Sutherland, “Reaching for the Stars,” The Economist, The World in 2018.
  3. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, Chapter 13.