Jim Duffy comment: Richard Branson and Elon Musk threaten the purity of space

No one wants to see a McDonald's burger restaurant on the moon, says Duffy. Picture: Contributed.
No one wants to see a McDonald's burger restaurant on the moon, says Duffy. Picture: Contributed.
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That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. The words of astronaut Neil Armstrong as he set foot on the surface of the moon in 1969 will live on in immortality. The achievements of the Apollo 11 mission are still to be surpassed, even today. Of course, as part of that mission, the American astronauts planted a US flag in the moon. It is an iconic photograph that makes me think one thing: I don’t want anyone to own space!

Nasa, as part of the American push to get to the moon before the Russians, was heavily funded to be successful at all costs. The cost of the Apollo programmes and all that has happened since makes the eyes water. The space shuttle programme is estimated to have cost around $196 billion (£153bn), while the space station, a mere $50bn. All in all since its creation in 1958, Nasa has cost the US taxpayer in excess of $16bn a year, levelling off at more than $900bn. Certainly a big number in anyone’s playbook. But, while the costs have been huge, including loss of life, the vision, ingenuity and ambition have been awe inspiring and led others to want to go one better. And herein lies the problem for me.

Space, for want of a better term, is not yet owned by anyone. As I sit and write this piece just now I am looking up at fairly full moon that has no mortgage on. Space has no politics or politicians. It has no religion, albeit when I get down on my knees and pray, I “look up” to heaven. Space has no snowflakes moaning about having to wear a poppy. It has no rioting over fuel hikes, no crime, no capitalism and no racism. Despite all the money the US and Russia have spent attempting to show who has the biggest balls, space remains pure. But, while Nasa re-engages and fuels up for another go, so-called space pioneers and entrepreneurs are already selling seats.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want space to be commercialised, owner by Richard Branson or Elon Musk. For me, this would ruin something very special.

Branson is having to move more quickly to get his space programme in gear as Musk is already showing that his baby – SpaceX – is leading the way. In October, Branson stated that: “We should be in space within weeks, not months.” I wonder if that was more for his investors than the actual reality. Nevertheless, the serial entrepreneur and owner of Virgin Galactic has been investing in space travel since 2004. Branson, who is a hugely successful entrepreneur billionaire, will himself go up there. That will be the litmus test that will be the catalyst for even more commercialisation of space. It’s a race for ego and cash. With Musk and, of course, Jeff Bezos of Amazon also competing to get the first fare-paying passengers into orbit. And the consumer demand is “gigantic”.

But, having entrepreneurs leading the charge feels to me like the capitalist ruination of space, before we truly refine the technology.

I don’t want to see a McDonald’s burger restaurant on the moon, do you?

Offering a better solution isn’t easy. If the likes of Musk, Branson and Bezos are determined to plough their furrows in being number one and first to market (by the way, you can fly first class for another $200,000) then it is pretty difficult to stop them. But, wouldn’t a more joined up approach be better for us all – I nearly said mankind, but that sums up part of the problem. Entrepreneurs by their very nature are stoical and focused on the big prize. But, the question is: what happens if they are successful? If these guys truly start to take space tourists up for trips and moon landings, then who will ensure that space is still – pure?

It’s a massive win for the first to crack it. Billions and billions of dollars will flow in as the business of space has only just begun. Nasa may have missed its opportunity, leaving the US in second place. Somewhere it does not like to be. It will catch up. When it does and space ownership raises its head, only then will things get ugly. Only then might some appreciate what I mean by keeping space pure.

- Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special