In September of 2018 I posted a review of a book called The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport. It’s a thrilling and dynamic look at the efforts of private companies to fill the void left by glacially slow and inefficient government programs to explore and colonize the solar system. In that detailed and fairly comprehensive study of the origins and goals of SpaceX, Blue Origins, Virgin Galactic, and other entrepreneurial efforts to utilize the vast universe beyond our atmospheric backyard, it seems clear that without these private upstarts taking bold technological strides to realize dreams humanity envisioned many decades ago, space programs would be hopelessly bogged down in ineptitude, indecision, and immense costs for little gain.
Peter Ward intends The Consequential Frontier as a cautionary note. His advice is to slow down and consider the ramifications of corporations taking over what was previously an industry affordable only by governments. Private companies are planning space stations, mining trips to the Moon, and the establishment of colonies on Mars. Ward wonders if the consequences of leaving these pioneering initiatives in private hands might be catastrophic in terms of the first companies there establishing monopolistic control of access to space and its resources. He cautions that before this happens, international accords such as the Outer Space Treaty that currently governs international space law need to be updated, and national governments need to pass legislation regulating corporations that manage to efficiently exploit space.
He has a good point. Regulations are, of course, necessary, just as laws and regulations tempered the monopolistic tendencies of digital giants in the wake of the tech explosion. Space, and particularly the planets and environs of our solar system, needs to be for all, and not hoarded and doled out for immense amounts of money by companies that manage to obtain a vise-like grip on it by virtue of being the first ones there.
A need for balance exists in this situation, though; if it were not for private companies stepping in and boldly going where governments were unwilling to go before, research into space exploration long ago would have stalled. As it is, private space companies are in the forefront of innovative technologies propelling efforts to reach nearby planets. Yes, the legislation needs to be in place to keep them from running amok, but no, they should not be hindered or slowed down in their initiative and enthusiasm to reach out into the cosmos.
Ward presents his point with a historical overview, a look at the present state of space programs, and a glimpse into future possibilities. One difficulty with the book is that it is far too short. It’s less than two hundred pages; it reads more like an extended essay than a fully realized work of nonfiction. Because of the brevity of the material, none of Ward’s arguments are presented in detail. The summation of past and present programs is brief, and the look at visions that various players are attempting to implement for the future only scratches the surface of what is being done. In fact, this book would have been much more effective and absorbing if it were five times the length that it is now – at least. Ward dismisses information in a few paragraphs that should have taken chapters to explain. Space is currently a hot topic, though, so I am sure that other writers will come along soon and fill in the gaps.
In conclusion, the book is interesting and worth reading, but it left me hungry for more details. I wish that Ward would have taken the time to fill out his material, and then I would have felt that I had gotten a good full meal instead of a hunger-teasing snack.