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Lost in Space: The Ethics of the Private Space Race


Space exploration has long been an important mission for humanity, one that has seen immense progress in recent years due, in part, to the growth of the private space industry. Private corporations have made significant progress in space travel and technology and have laid the groundwork for a “space-for-space” economy: a new economic paradigm detached from existing markets that serves life in space rather than focusing efforts on improving life on Earth. The role of private enterprises calls into question the ethical considerations of granting corporations access to the vast resources of space and implores us as engineers to define ethical standards to balance technological innovation with societal progress.


Space: the final frontier. These immortal words of Captain James T. Kirk, ones that have inspired scientists and engineers for generations to look to the stars, perfectly capture the reality of space exploration today. After decades of scientific research and trillions of dollars poured into government projects, space remains largely unexplored and uncolonized by humanity. The past decade has witnessed impressive advancements in the field of space exploration at a speed unseen since the Cold War era, largely due to the rise of private corporations and the economic growth of the space industry. The role of private enterprise in space exploration and its rapid success in recent years emphasizes the ethical considerations of allowing large technology corporations access to the relatively untapped resources of space. In particular, the widespread implications of this new private space race position engineers at a crossroads between technological innovation and societal progress. It falls upon the ethical standards of individual engineers to realize a future for humanity within our universe.

Historical Context

There is a rich history of collaboration between the private and public sectors when it comes to space exploration. Space exploration and technological development were traditionally governmental endeavors; the grand scale of these projects and the opportunities to enhance national security they presented meant that national governments were the primary agencies tasked with space exploration. Despite public agencies leading the earliest space explorations, private companies played a pivotal role in this process. Public-private partnerships were especially prominent in U.S. space programs like Apollo and Mercury during the Cold War’s space race against the USSR. Several major players in the space industry today initially gained their reputation and financial success through government and defense contracts. For instance, Boeing manufactured the Saturn V rocket that transported the first people to the moon and joined Lockheed-Martin in forming the United Launch Alliance, “a joint venture which combined the only two suppliers [Boeing and LM] of medium-to-heavy national security related launch services” [1]. The engineering model of these long-established companies serves to support and reinforce the scientific research of government projects, rather than to advance an individual corporate agenda.

The 2010s brought a new era characterized by a rise in space companies advocating for increased commercial independence in space exploration. Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) became the first private company to send humans to space and back in May 2020, followed by similar voyages by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic [2]. Meanwhile, startups such as Planetary Resources, Inc. and Deep Space Industries began with the goal of kickstarting the space mining industry. These new private companies represent a shift from a “space-for-earth” to a “space-for-space” ideology. While previous government efforts for space exploration were rooted in an ultimate goal of improving life on Earth, these new-age space companies set forth a new vision of creating an independent economic paradigm detached from existing markets and free to explore and capitalize on the opportunities that exist beyond Earth.

Space Ethics

The prominence of independent private companies in the space industry brings to light new ethical questions of how corporate greed could impact the well-being of future generations, as humanity looks to space as not only a scientific enterprise but also an untapped economic marketplace. Current experts in the field have named this conversation “space ethics” [3], an evolving and contentious set of guidelines that determine human conduct beyond Earth.

While the ethics of space exploration has been a topic of lively debate these past few years, the common framework in which space exploration is discussed fails to account for the infancy of the problem at hand and some of the novel ethical dilemmas that are presented. Conversations surrounding space ethics are typically discussed through the lens of utilitarian ethics, weighing the benefits of space commercialization against the potential negative consequences [3]. Under this framework, “ethical” private space exploration is a model which maximizes innovation and technological progress, while regulation minimizes the exploitation of resources by corporations. However, the utilitarian model of ethics fails to consider the nuance that comes with a field as nascent as the “space-for-space” industry; specifically, this framework deals in absolutes and encourages behavior that results in “good” when, in reality, the idea of right and wrong is yet to be clearly defined in the industry. Instead, virtue ethics provides a promising lens through which one can view commercial space exploration. A model that prioritizes “the role of character and virtue,” virtue ethics focuses on the journey to develop virtuous habits rather than maximizing the “good” across one’s actions [4]. As space privatization continues to grow and change, the ethical standard for private enterprises should then be judged as an ongoing process, one that leaves room for the unknown consequences of space exploration and exploitation and adapts to the dynamic environment of the space industry. This virtue ethics framework would encourage businesses to learn to emphasize technological processes with a continual goal of improving life on Earth and beyond. 

The growth of commercial involvement in the space industry would not only upend the existing economic landscape but could also potentially cause widespread ramifications in the social and political worlds, as well. In his article, Power Dynamics in the Age of Space Commercialisation, researcher Santiago Rementeria speaks to the impact the “alleged democratization” of space can have on existing power structures on Earth [5]. In particular, Rementeria discusses two potential realizations of this phenomenon: one where the immense wealth of transnational corporations dilutes the power of government and another where countries with a greater space-based economic presence dominate over others [5]. This discussion raises ethical questions of who deserves access to the resources space provides and whether these actors can be trusted to use that power to benefit the public rather than a select few. In either case, the freedom of corporations not tied to government agencies can create an imbalance in an already imperfect global society. This impact illustrates why corporations in the space industry must carefully consider any actions they take, especially when their technology can have such far-reaching economic, social, and geopolitical ramifications that can reshape the global power dynamics.

The changing view of space as not just a resource but as an untapped economic marketplace gives rise to the question: how much of a role should private enterprises and governments have in space? Business pundits advocate for a more decentralized model of the new space economy, which they argue will allow businesses to take on more risk than would be acceptable for the government [2]. In the past decade, the private space industry has surpassed NASA in speed and innovation, achieving more with smaller budgets and quicker turnaround times [6]. The capitalist model of technological innovation, dubbed the “Silicon Valley Model” by researcher Steven Casper, is at its peak in the space industry, where corporate leaders prioritize innovation and opportunities for growth above all else [7].  Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have embraced this methodology, pushing the bounds of space transport and exploration under the incentives of the capitalist market [8]. Where governments are held back by the overhead of red tape and increased public scrutiny, corporations are free to pursue technological innovation in search of profits, allowing the private sector to achieve a level of scientific advancement that could have otherwise taken decades. 

The technological innovation fostered by the American free-market approach highlights capitalism’s dark side, including its inherent tendency toward wealth inequality. Afar magazine names Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk as the top “three space barons” of the modern age as owners of new space companies Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX [8]. These three multi-billionaires are among the nation’s wealthiest, and their services, including space voyages costing more than the average U.S. home, cater exclusively to the rich, serving only a “narrow slice of humanity.” This model of space privatization only further reinforces the position of the rich, providing premier access to seemingly unlimited resources to those who already possess most of the Earth’s wealth and widening the wealth gap that plagues the global population. 

Engineers in Space

In examining space privatization through this new lens, it becomes clear that engineers within these private institutions play a key role in maintaining ethical standards and holding corporations accountable. The National Society of Professional Engineers, an institution that develops ethical guidelines for various engineering disciplines, notes the following as a core tenet of the field: “Engineers shall at all times strive to serve the public interest … to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” [9]. Engineers are the foundation for the corporate space industry; with this role comes the responsibility to balance the pursuit of innovation with the impact their engineering will have on the space economy. We as engineers have a responsibility to not only carefully consider the ethics of the technology we are tasked to build, but also to work towards building strong corporate virtues – those qualities that acknowledge the potential for discrimination or harm in their technology and actively attempt to ensure equitable and safe access to space for all.

While the debate on space ethics is ongoing, it is clear that the privatization of space exploration is a seemingly inevitable reality, and more importantly, one that should not be shied away from. Space exploration has been inextricably intertwined with private enterprise since its beginnings, and the growth of an independent private space industry suggests that vast financial opportunities lie in space. To deny the role of corporations in the burgeoning space economy would be to neglect to recognize the immense technological progress they have been able to achieve compared to their counterparts in government agencies. To create a strong ethical foundation for the future of a “space-for-space” economy, society must capitalize on the time remaining to ask the right questions and build good corporate virtues that prioritize human liberty over corporate greed. To do so would once again require the collaboration of the public and private sectors: government agencies, private enterprises, and technical experts would need to come together to set standards that allow for innovation and financial success to coexist with the common good.

To define what “ethical” corporate practices could look like and to hold companies accountable, a three-pronged approach involving corporate leadership, government institutions, and individual engineers can be implemented. Corporations must create a culture of questioning and transparency internally, one that allows engineers to voice concerns and report higher-level leadership without fear of retribution from their employers. At the same time, the government should interface regularly with private space enterprises to ensure that companies continue to uphold these virtues and that the progress made serves to benefit the larger public, while still providing substantial agency to individual companies. In doing so, society on Earth can create a solid framework for businesses and governments to exist in outer space in a way that allows everyone to prosper from the vast opportunities the universe has to offer.


The privatization of space exploration poses a difficult question for humanity to grapple with. When the “space-for-space” economy comes to fruition and makes life beyond Earth a reality, society may seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes of history on the grander scale of the universe. Yet, with the right regulations in place, a diverse ethical framework agreed upon by the public and private sectors alike, and enough independence for businesses to find success, space commercialization also has the potential to open up the human race to a brighter future. It is up to the engineers of today to lay the groundwork of strong ethical virtues to empower the people of tomorrow to boldly go where no one has gone before.

By Anishalakshmi V Palaparthi, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

About the Author:

At the time of writing this paper, Anisha Palaparthi was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering and Computer Science.


[1] J. Bauer, “Space Privatization: A History and Analysis of its Economic Consequences for

the Future of Space,” Available:

[2] M. Weinzierl, M. Sarang, “The Commercial Space Age Is Here,” Harvard Business Review, Available:

[3] T. Milligan, “Nobody Owns the Moon: The Ethics of Space Exploitation,” Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.

[4] D. Copp, The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[5] S. Rementeria et al., “Power Dynamics in the Age of Space Commercialisation,” Space Policy, Available:

[6] T. Fernolz, “An Oxford case study explains why SpaceX is more efficient than NASA,” Quartz, Available:

[7] S. Casper, “Creating Silicon Valley in Europe: Public Policy towards New Technology Industries,” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[8] L. Tran, “The Private Companies Pioneering the (New) Space Race,” AFAR Media, Available:

[9] “Code of Ethics,” Code of Ethics | National Society of Professional Engineers, Available:

Links for Further Reading:

The case for space ethics

A declaration for a uniform code of space ethics 

Ethics in Space: The Case for Future Space Exploration

A deep dive into space radiation and its impacts on humans

The New Space Race Is Causing New Pollution Problems

Potential environmental risks of the New Space Race