Who owns the greater good?

As the sky becomes ever-more-littered with satellites, space fans must contend with the real threat: capitalism run amok

Hello, readers! Tonight I’m sharing an op-ed I wrote back in March, which I am thinking of as Jeff Bezos enjoys his newly-minted FCC approval for a new satellite “megaconstellation”, and The Congress of Essential Workers prepares for an August 9th march on Bezos’ 80 million dollar property. Understandably, in the midst of our collective on-ramp into the coronavirus pandemic, this essay never found a publishing home— but today, on March 151st or whatever, I hope you’ll find it remains relevant. If you prefer to watch a video version, you can catch a short (12 min) talk I gave for the Space Science in Context Conference in April.

In solidarity to the stars, LW.

In February 2018, 2.3 million people tuned into YouTube for the second-most popular publicity stunt in history: In a successful test of the Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX launched a car into orbit. But it wasn’t just any car: perched in the payload bay of the Falcon Heavy was SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s personal “midnight cherry” red Tesla Roadster, a vehicle with a base price of $200,000— though obviously, this particular Roadster was basically free to Musk, who not only owned the car, but the entire operation that produced it. 

Those who watched the Roadster achieve orbit were dazzled by its perfect theater: a shiny red sports car, piloted by a life-size mannequin stuffed into a SpaceX-designed astronaut suit, with David Bowie’s “Starman” looping on the sound system (albeit presumably into the silent vacuum of space). Once the cinders of the media fireworks faded, however, the murmurs of dismay began. Many people— particularly astrobiologists, the scientists who study and seek life beyond Earth— worried that the Roadster hadn’t been cleaned according to “planetary protection” guidelines, which guard other worlds from contamination by Earth (and vice versa). Shiny though it appeared, the Tesla is likely teeming with microbes; if it were to collide with Mars (a slim but nonzero possibility), it could contaminate the red planet. Beyond scientific concerns, not everyone found the optics of a billionaire essentially throwing away his luxury vehicle inspiring, or at least inspiring of anything beyond disgust. 

In more recent months, SpaceX has found itself in the crossfire again: beginning in 2019, SpaceX began its first forays into Starlink, a satellite constellation intended to provide space-based, wireless internet across the globe. The satellites, each around 500 pounds, are intended to circumvent the usual infrastructure that internet service requires; even when you access the internet through a wireless device like your laptop or phone, the vast majority of “the internet” is a network of wireband fiber cables that span the globe. Bringing reliable internet access to parts of the planet where such infrastructure doesn’t yet exist comes with considerable expense, and so rural communities are often left to either pay more for less reliable service, or without access entirely. Starlink— and similar planned satellite constellations by other companies, such as Amazon “Project Kuiper”, OneWeb, and others— aim to reach customers in these areas, either by providing the internet directly, or by becoming the infrastructure through which space-based internet would operate. 

Stargazing enthusiasts and professional astronomers alike were caught off-guard by the first sizable Starlink launch: when the first batch of 60 satellites reached their position in low Earth orbit in May of 2019, night sky observers were horrified to witness the glinting satellites leaving bright streaks across the dark night sky, ruining astronomical images. As of last week, a total of 362 of Starlink’s planned 12,000 satellites now orbit the Earth. Public outcry has followed, and much has been written since about the night sky as a global commons. Mirroring the worry that the Tesla Roadster had stepped neatly around planetary protection regulations, legal scholars have argued that the Starlink launches may have actually been illegal, a possible violation of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Others still have written in to the recent Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act

open comment period arguing that updates are inadequate because they don’t include near space in the legal definition of the Earth’s “environment”. Still others fear that the Starlink constellation poses a hazard to all space-based systems by creating additional risk of collisions. In its current deployment, the Starlink satellites have a roughly 10% failure rate, meaning that the nonfunctional satellites are now colloquially known as “rocks”, dead machines incapable of maneuvering to avoid potentially catastrophic collisions with other satellites in space. As any individual collision would result in myriad bits and pieces, each individually capable of wreaking havoc through further collisions, “space junk” experts worry that these mega-constellations could create a cascading hazard for access to space for the entire world. 

Counter arguments to upset stargazers and those who see Starlink as an environmental protection issue have centered on the greater good: Starlink promoters say that communities who have not had access to the information and myriad services that are facilitated by the internet will benefit, and anyone crying over spilled starlight is a privileged whiner. Musk has argued that astronomical telescopes should simply be moved to space (a prohibitively expensive proposition), though in his most recent public discussion of the matter, he states that SpaceX is looking into making dark coatings for the Starlink constellation, thus reducing their reflectivity and harm to the night sky. Even if the satellites can be darkened, however, their shiniest parts— solar panels—can’t, so coatings provide only mitigation at best.

At first blush, Starlink’s purported mission to provide internet to underserved areas seems like a water-tight example of the greater good. While the internet, as a technological system, is capable of facilitating both good and evil in equal portion, Starlink’s fans seem to heartily feel that at least providing access is a purely egalitarian impulse. Much in the way that Musk, Bezos, and other space capitalists expound on the supposed need to colonize Mars to “back up humanity” in case of global catastrophe, the greater good in Starlink is both a weapon and a shield: it neatly deflects critique of the global consequences of a company’s unilateral actions, at the same time as it justifies the unfettering of precisely the actions that will directly lead those companies to profit. After all, if you are a billionaire technologist with multiple vested interests in connecting people to the main way you sell your other wares, be it cheap clothing manufactured in brutal working conditions across the globe and fulfilled locally by Amazon, or expensive vehicles you can afford to literally toss off the planet (but are hoping someone else might purchase), people who are “offline” are primarily a problem because they are unavailable to you as consumers. 

Greater good arguments around Starlink, in particular, smack of technological colonialism: the idea that the internet is a righteous force, a great equalizer. These lines of reasoning benefit from a general muddling of vocabulary, from words like “rural” and “underserved” being tacitly interpreted by tech enthusiasts in their euphemistic (rather than literal) sense, to mean “poor”. While it is true that poverty does face some of the communities Starlink describes as their possible customer base, it’s worth looking at what a likely cost might be for individuals. SpaceX and other companies looking to launch their own satellite constellations are cagey about stating a price, especially since the Starlink satellites themselves are only one part of the infrastructure: users would also need to have transmitters locally, which could run up to several hundred dollars a piece. A recent analysis by Victor Chemin, a French physics student, compared GDP per capita for each country to the percentage of its population with access to the internet, showing that even with a very generous definition of “affordable”, Starlink’s services would likely be financially accessible only for countries where its services are needed least.

It might seem like an odd time to debate the future of space-based infrastructure, given the rapidly evolving crisis at hand, but the shiny red Roadster and flocks of satellites streaking across our sky are case studies in a kind of weaponized “greater good”. This week, as the United States continues its inexorable climb in the number of coronavirus infections, we are also witnessing a pivot in how the Trump administration believes we should view the future. This week, Trump began to discuss the “reopening” of America— the need to balance the deaths of potentially millions of people with the “greater good” of keeping businesses afloat; later in the evening, in an interview with Tucker Carlson, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick claimed that grandparents would gladly sacrifice themselves to coronavirus infection to preserve the economy for their grandchildren. Within hours, the hashtag #notdying4wallstreet was trending on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the city of Seattle, home to satellite-constellation-hopeful Jeff Bezos (who in 2018 claimed that “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel”) scrambles to serve its community, turning soccer fields into field hospitals as local Target stores sell face masks. Amazon warehouse workers across the world have sounded the alarm that there are cases of coronavirus amongst their colleagues, and that conditions in the warehouses preclude the ability to observe the hand washing protocols recommended by the CDC. Naturally, Amazon is hiring: as people hunker down to protect their health, those who can afford to do so feed the hydra by ordering delivery— and despite the fact that Bezos is the world’s wealthiest person and could readily ease his employees financial woes, Amazon has set up a “relief fund” that you can donate to instead.

Space has always been a proxy for our dreams about the future. It represents possibilities, though what those possibilities look like in detail is inevitably shaped by the worldview of whoever is doing the dreaming (be they aspiring space barons, or real estate salesmen who have moved on to national politics). Much like Mars colonization to shore up humanity in case of global catastrophe (a catastrophe always conjured in the form of an asteroid strike, or really any disaster that doesn’t come with human responsibility the way that climate change does), or satellite constellations (brought to us by unilateral actions whose urgency pivots on a murky understanding of what communities without internet access may or may not want or need), these feints to the “greater good” distract us from the bigger blow: they are arguing for their greater good, not good for the greatest number of the rest of us. You cannot save humanity by relocating a small sampling of us to Mars for the same reason that you can’t avert a pandemic by hiring 100,000 new workers to labor in a warehouse where they, too, may get sick.

None of us is expendable. We are the greater good.