Perhaps We Should Regulate Deranged Billionaires Like Elon Musk

By one estimate, Elon Musk owns more than a quarter of all active satellites orbiting Earth. Though his fantasy of becoming emperor of Mars probably won't materialize, we have to scale back the unchecked power of deranged Bond villain types like Musk before it extends from Earth to the skies.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveils the company's manned spacecraft, The Dragon V2, on May 29, 2014, in Hawthorne, CA. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

Last month, Elon Musk officially became the world’s richest man. Though it sounds like the plot of a decidedly down-market Bond flick, he’s now also the world’s most powerful space baron.

That’s according to a new analysis, which finds that the SpaceX CEO now controls more than 27 percent of all active satellites currently orbiting Earth — roughly one thousand out of 3,500. Musk’s stake is almost certain to get even bigger in the coming years, with physicist Alastair Isaacs estimating the share could grow to 50 percent as early as 2022 based on the number of launches currently associated with SpaceX. The greatest proportion of those launches are related to Starlink — an initiative the company says will bring “near global” high-speed internet coverage this year.

Given Musk’s well-established penchant for absurd and often cringeworthy self-promotion, this claim can probably be taken with a grain of salt. Just a few short years ago, after all, the billionaire was confidently telling a technology conference that he would begin sending rockets to Mars in 2018 and would be able to start colonization efforts within a decade. Pure hokum, as it usually turns out to be, Musk’s techno-utopian hype has nevertheless given him an image more like that of a Promethean creator than a garden-variety capitalist — more vanguard of humanity’s interstellar future than telecom monopolist in its present.

Whether SpaceX is ultimately capable of sending people to Mars or not, even a cursory glance at Musk’s vision for space travel is a warning about the dangers of allowing billionaires to extend their grip beyond the atmosphere. Last year, the company published updated terms of service for its Starlink project, announcing that it would not recognize international law on the Red Planet. Instead, Musk envisions a kind of off-world Randianism in which “self-governing principles” (i.e., those determined by his company) form the rules of the road. Though his stated blueprint for Martian colonization looks like a textbook case of obvious nonsense (involving, among other things, some truly absurd math) we should, at any rate, read this as a genuine statement of intent. If a new life ever actually does await in the off-world colonies, prospective space monopolists are determined to shape it themselves, free of constraint. Given how companies like Tesla already treat their workers, it takes little imagination to picture what that might look like.

In fact, what Musk himself envisioned during a Twitter Q&A last summer was more or less explicitly a kind of space feudalism. As Gizmodo’s Tom McKay observed at the time, even the idealized Martian future of the billionaire’s social media PR imagined putting hypothetical interstellar pilgrims to work for SpaceX upon their arrival:

Oh, and anyone who wishes to go along for the ride will have to pay for it, despite the fact that Mars would arguably be SpaceX’s job site.

Can’t afford it? Take out a loan and pay it off by working for SpaceX when you’re there, which is definitely not indentured servitude because . . . Mars? Because it happens on Mars. That appears to be the logic.

For the time being, at least, Musk remains just a regular, exorbitantly rich corporate oligarch with a uniquely cringeworthy social media presence. But even if his vision of becoming Martian god-emperor never comes to fruition, the billionaire is already on course to control a vital piece of global infrastructure in the decades ahead. Just as the robber barons of the Gilded Age monopolized railways, steel, oil, and other commodities, those of the twentyi-first century now largely own the internet, the digital public square, and other crucial architecture of modern social, cultural, and economic life.

The world’s richest man now controls nearly 30 percent of earth’s satellites: What could possibly go wrong? In the future, it may be necessary to prevent the planet’s richest people from extending their power into the solar system. For now, it’s long past time we broke their grip on the infrastructure of everyday life. The space beyond Earth’s atmosphere must be protected from Elon Musk.