Sure, space exploration costs money. And Internet entrepreneurs have lots of it. But we've got to stop the likes of Milner, Zuckerberg and Musk expanding their power beyond Earth, writes DW's Zulfikar Abbany.
I'm surprised NASA even got a look in during the Q&A session of Tuesday's Breakthrough Starshot announcement. It came in the form of a question to Pete Worden, a former employee of NASA's Ames Research Center. If memory serves, he even mentioned the European Space Agency (ESA). Both were apparently happy and involved with the Starshot project.
The Starshot project aims to create a flotilla of nano spacecraft, each weighing less than an apple, and have them blasted via an Earth-based laser to the Alpha Centauri star system in search of life.
Wow. It sounds so Kubrick. And just as terrifying, too.
Call me a Luddite or plain stupid, but the problem is the involvement of tech billionaires. In this case, the headliners are Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg, I regret, needs no introduction. Milner, meanwhile, is a somewhat lesser-known Russian entrepreneur, venture capitalist and physicist, who has featured on Bloomberg's list of 50 most influential people.
When it comes to space exploration, these two are not alone.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has his Blue Origin initiative. Elon Musk of PayPal and Tesla Motors fame has SpaceX. Google has various projects on the go, running under the Google X agenda, including Google Lunar and Space Elevators(!). Then, there are entrepreneurs from other fields, such Richard Branson, with Virgin Galactic.
All want a slice of the space pie.
In the public interest
You could argue that allowing publicly traded companies to invest in space frees up governments to focus on spending our hard-earned taxes on schools, roads and hospitals. And you'd be right. You could also argue that participation of these companies, irrespective of their deep commercial interests, means anyone from any country can get involved - you don't have to be a member of ESA to become a European astronaut anymore. This is one reason the Mars One project finds favor - it's not-for-profit and non-governmental.
But the thing about governments is they tend to be accountable to the public. The tech industry, on the other hand, pushes a heavy-handed program of self-regulation. It is accountable to no one but company shareholders. And I'm not sure it's the best idea to rely on largely unknown and unaccountable people to explore space, with all its potential ramifications for humanity, given that most of us are unaware of where their precise interests lie.
Although it's a good chance their motives are conjoined with greed and territorial power.
Isn't it bad enough that we allow Silicon Valley (and other tech regions) to filter and shape our access to existing knowledge through Internet search algorithms that prioritize information and devices that track and manipulate our every movement?
The last thing we need now is for the tech industries, wherever they are, to start controlling and filtering new knowledge about space before we mere mortals have had a chance to clamp our eyes on it.
So I say: Silicon Valley, hands off our space!
Oh, and Professor Hawking, it's time you took a back seat too. You've had a fair innings and it's time to take your bow.