Politics and the Regulation of Space

The late comedian Bill Hicks used to express bewilderment at the fact that humanity was still divided into competing factions rather than united as a species exploring outer space. Comedians often ask too much of mankind, but apart from his sentiment being a critique, Hicks was also voicing a desire — maybe a dream that most of us have had as children — to be an astronaut: a desire to lift off, out of this world, and look at it from above, explore planets beyond human sight, and see whether, and what kind of, life could be lived that is not terrestrial.

The human environment is as large as our technologies make it. Beginning in isolated villages, we learned of new continents thanks to compasses and boats, crossed the skies in planes, and hollowed out much of the planet’s fossil underground with our drills. We have organized ourselves in un­ precedentedly complex and interconnected systems bound together by oil and gas pipelines, electrical wires, air travel, fiber optic cables, satellite connections, and cyber links. And now that we live in the Anthropocene — this new epoch in which no earthly places, entities, forms, processes, or systems escape the reach and influence of human activity — our technologies might enable us to realize our childhood dreams of flying through space and visiting, or even settling on, other planets.

The world’s business and innovation leaders, including the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, are investing heavily in the development of new space technologies for the transportation of humans and cargo. Spaceflight will presumably become increasingly cheaper in the next 20 years, and this will set off a supernova of opportunities and enterprises — all beyond our planet’s outer atmo­ sphere. This process is also being powerfully propelled by a growing need for internet access around the world as more and more people connect to the cloud; this could eventually deliver an archipelago of networked space satellites, some of which could be inhabitable, feeding cascades of data to users on Earth. Asteroid mining could be another huge business. All in all, by the year 2040 the space industry could reach USD 1.1 trillion, according to reports by Morgan Stanley. It is most likely the case that we’ll soon be visiting, exploring, infrastructuring, digitizing, and mining space, and using it in various other ways — including inhabiting it.

Undoubtedly, the benefits to mankind of space travel, explor­ation, monitoring, data­gathering, commerce, and settling could be enormous, ranging from a possibly vertiginous increase in knowledge to a possibly ver­tiginous increase in the availability of otherworldly natural resources and stretching even to the possibility of evolutionary change — if and when future generations of Homo sapiens are born in space — and of inter­species interaction, if and when space­traveling humans meet alien life. Our frequenting space has the potential to bend our evolutionary process both in space and on Earth and, possibly, the evolutionary process of our galaxy at large. As more and more of us begin working, living, and establishing interests and enterprises in outer space, we’ll need to govern our ways of doing so and regulate our manifold new space activities.

 

Spaceflight will presumably become increasingly cheaper in the next 20 years, and this will set off a supernova of opportunities and enterprises — all beyond our planet’s outer atmosphere

 

Today, the main legal document regarding space activities is the Treaty on the Principles Governing the Activities of States in Exploration and Use of Outer Space of 1967, which was signed by the US and the USSR in the midst of the Cold War (the UK was already a signatory). Such a document, whose main achievement was to stop the nuclear arms race from escalating to the moon, gives guidance on what states can and cannot do in space. Not only is this guidance already lacunose as it pertains to states, but the treaty also leaves largely open how the actions and interactions of actors other than states in space are to be regulated. Some of these actors are precisely those who are now driving research and innovation in space technologies. What are private companies allowed or not allowed to do in space? Can a company land on an asteroid, call it its own, mine it, and sell what it has extracted? Can companies send robots to other planets? And how should states from Earth regulate these businesses?

These are only some of the myriad questions that will spring up once we make our way beyond the stratosphere. More considerations follow, but it should already be apparent that the need for regulating space activities is urgent in order to capture more fully the benefits of new opportunities; to ensure that these benefits accrue to the many and not just the few (be those many and few on Earth or in space); to maintain precaution in the face of natural forces, entities, processes, and systems that we are far from having fully understood; to avoid contamination or pollution of terrestrial as well as non­terrestrial environments; and, most of all, to avoid transferring our worst Hobbesian nightmares of anarchy, conflict, and colonization to cosmic levels. With virtually no blueprint to follow, humanity in space meets not only an unparalleled and unprecedented set of opportunities but also formidable challenges and responsibilities.

How should we think of space, and human actions and interactions therein? Is space and all it contains the common heritage of humankind (despite the stunning anthropocentrism implicit in this claim), or is it no­man’s land? If it is the former, do we all own an equal bit of space? Is that bit of space an asset that could help us secure a mortgage here on Earth? More generally, how is property acquired in space, and who administers and enforces property rights? Are humans or organizations who act and interact in space to be considered, and thus regulated, as private agents or as envoys of humankind? Should the principles of preservation, conservation, and stewardship that are thought to be at the center of

most environmental ethics and politics on  Earth also apply to non­terrestrial environments? Can we terraform other planets or space elements, and what principles would inspire the protocol for doing that? Should we also institute ‘space reserves’ to insulate sections of space from humanization?

The most likely scenario for the near future is that businesses and innovators will begin acting and interacting in space outside of a clear moral and legal framework. Lack of regulation may be justified when research and development are in their infancy to allow innovation to gain momentum unfettered, but regulation ought to be in place when technologies are ready to change our lives.

 

The most likely scenario for the near future is that businesses and innovators will begin acting and interacting in space outside of a clear moral and legal framework

 

It is not too late to bring forethought, planning, and transparency to bear on space travel and activities. Our first moves into space will set precedents of great consequence for the future. The stakes are great: in dark scenarios, conflict and militarization might ensue, both in space and on Earth; but in bright scenarios, we may unite as a cosmopolitan species, as Hicks expected us to do, and enjoy incredibly enriching cosmic experiences.

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