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2019: A Space Quandary

2019: A Space Quandary

Space: the final frontier.

William Shatner’s iconic line at the beginning of each episode of the original Star Trek captured the hearts of a generation who became romanticized by the prospect of life beyond Earth. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars only added to the emergent fascination with all things extraterrestrial. The space race between the Soviet Union and the United States further captivated the entire world. Yet some would argue that in the time since, the world has fallen short on the issue of governing space, paving the way for private entrepreneurs from all over the world to take advantage of the current circumstances. The lack of internationally agreed upon standards for space presents dangerous opportunities for all involved, whether they are government or non-government organizations (NGOs). From both a theoretical and practical point of view, the realm of space risks becoming anarchic if significant action is not taken. The question is: what action should be taken?

The New Space Race

In an era where an iPhone contains more computing power than the computers the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) used when they landed the first person on the moon in 1969, the growth of a space-oriented private sector has outstripped the funding needs of government-run organizations like NASA. Flush with cash from their global companies, billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson have acted upon the nostalgia of their childhoods and have each invested heavily in aerospace technology. Their efforts are particularly noteworthy as NASA has seen significant budget cuts that have forced it to allow for greater privatization of the industry and for private companies to assume a much more prominent role in government contracts. Moreover, countries such as Japan, IndiaPakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have sought to secure their own international standing by building their domestic industries with the goal of becoming more substantial players in space within the next decade – something that was formerly exclusive to superpowers of the Cold War.

The United States and Russia have responded by ramping up their efforts in recent years. President Trump signed a directive to establish a Space Force and Vice President Mike Pence called for NASA to expedite the timeline for human missions to the Moon, despite the latter policy being widely seen as an enormous risk. Russia has instructed its space agency, Roscosmos, to restore Russia’s current program to its Soviet-era glory with upgrades to its Soyuz rockets. China, despite being the newest of the “big three,” oversaw a massive advancement in space capabilities by its agency, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), which was able to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon for the first time in history. This achievement shows that the space race is no longer restricted to the old Cold War dynamic. It also shows that China will be a major player for years to come, with this feat being only the tip of the iceberg for just how advanced its ambitions and abilities have become. Even minor players like Israel have made major strides in the field, as evidenced when an Israeli nonprofit came achingly close to making Israel the fourth country to land on the Moon in April. Nonetheless, this event demonstrates the vast potential of 21st century space travel, and a much more diversified portfolio of countries and NGOs are planning on following Israel’s lead.

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A Short History of Space Policy

Amidst heightened speculation of space becoming an extended arena in many aspects of life, the international treaties that regulate its activities remain unsettlingly outdated. Space law as it exists today is primarily derived from the events of the 1960s, the height of the space race. Since Andrew G. Haley, commonly referred to as the world’s first space lawyer, published Space Law and Government in 1963, touching on pressing issues like sovereignty, his writings would go on to define much of the modern discourse and legal parameters. Four years later, 104 countries ratified the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS) Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the agreement served as the de facto governing treaty over space. The treaty forbids placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit, limits the use of celestial bodies to only those activities that promote peace,prohibits a country from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies, and establishes that a country has responsibility over activities of its national non-governmental entities while in space. In many ways, the treaty was a groundbreaking feat in a fraught time, but its inception was over half a century ago.

The treaty has recently begun shown its age due to its inability to address significant modern-day challenges. Meanwhile, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has adopted only four treaties since then. These include the following: The Rescue Agreement, which provides for what aid countries will provide during a search and rescue operation; the Space Liability Convention, which states that countries will accept responsibility for all space objects launched within their territory; the Registration Convention, which requires countries to register with and give details about each of its space objects to the UN; and the latest one, the 1979 Moon Treaty, which intends to establish a governing body for use of the Moon and other celestial bodies in the Solar System like the UN did with the sea floor. Therefore, it declares that the use of the Moon must benefit the entire world, in turn banning military use, environmental alterations, and claims of sovereignty. This treaty summarizes the shortcomings of space policy and the potential consequences: it has been deemed a failure because no state that has launched or plans to launch manned space exploration vehicles has ratified it. This leaves the situation in a unique state of being that makes it hard to understand the direction it is going in, but it very well could prompt a race to seize the Moon.

Space is unique in its boundless infinitum, and humans naturally want to explore it for a variety of reasons, whether it be science, progress, human survival, or legacy. However, take this with the lack of international participation and adherence towards space law as well as the rapid developments and advancements in space interest and technology, and we could see the makings of an all-out gold rush to the final frontier, the likes of which have never been seen before. This has the potential to exacerbate global and domestic conflict that will have far-reaching consequences on the future of the planet. Below are just some of the space policy issues that need to be taken into account before this unprecedented era in space travel kicks into full gear.

What is “Space”

“What is space?” remains one of the persisting questions regarding humanity’s activities in the final frontier. Seemingly simple, the answer is rather complex when further investigated, especially when it comes to governing outer space. The nearest analogy would be international waters, but there are more than 3,600 agreements and treaties on that matter as opposed to the five space-related ones mentioned above. To note, there is no internationally agreed upon edge of space and international law likewise does not define this term. While the Karman line (an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62 miles above the ground) has been widely used to mark the separation between the atmosphere and outer space, members of the space community have been challenging its efficacy. Nonetheless, as history’s controversies over sovereignty have shown, the lack of any strong and enforced international treaties could pave the way for serious conflict. What will the consequences be if nations claim celestial bodies as their own? A new, global approach must be adopted to tackle this likely issue as nations race to the Moon and beyond. If not, the failure to establish jurisdiction could lead to an all-out space race that forgoes all limits and disrupts global stability. 

Privatization

The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 allowed for the privatization of space travel, opening the doors for key stakeholders in the aerospace industry to reap future economic rewards. Since then, there have been a plethora of private sector players, like Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk with SpaceX, who have entered the market, showing that the potential of space is near endless. In the case of Amazon, also owned by Bezos, it intends to launch over 3,000 satellites into orbit to provide “high-speed broadband connectivity for unserved and underserved communities around the world.” Virgin Galactic has already flown with a test passenger on board, and NASA has contracted Boeing and SpaceX to transport crew and cargo to the International Space Station.

Despite these first-of-their-kind feats, the risk of monopoly remains. For example, while governments still play a major role in promoting space exploration, the 2015 U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act encourages private sector investment as a means of enabling a pro-growth environment for the commercial space industry. The outcome of this could be two-fold. First, the rising dominance of the private sector could make a government-led enterprise inefficient and mute, and thus make the industry near exclusively private or private-run. Second, the failure to reach a consensus on international corporation guidelines could pave the way for an exclusionary space market and limit the potential of space exploration. 

For example, if a company were to discover a new space mineral that is highly useful in the medical community, it could, hypothetically, patent it and thus reap the benefits of a legally-granted monopoly. Furthermore, according to current international space law, countries have jurisdiction over their native companies while in outer space. While this may seem prudent to leaders and domestic voters, the difference in regulations between, say, the U.S., Russia, and China, could create an outer space landscape where predatory financing and exclusion are commonplace. Furthermore, international companies could use the legally-ambiguous nature of space to skirt the unfavorable regulations of one country in favor of another by opening up a subsidiary that uses the latter country’s regulatory framework. If the legal dilemma is not solved, we could see a further exploitation in the commercial sector – a very troubling thought. 

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The Internet and Privacy Protection

In the wake of the high demand for telecommunications infrastructure in the solar system as humans push deeper into space, Axios reported that AI industrial complex Hypergiant Galactic Systems and nonprofit Arch Mission Foundation plan to launch a series of small satellites intended to serve as relay points as part of an eventual interplanetary internet. This interplanetary internet could proactively find solutions to the communications and data transfer challenges of the future, serve as an “offsite backup for the planet,” and facilitate extraterrestrial life exploration. Ultimately, the company that creates the foundation for this space-to-space communications system stands ready to reap the financial rewards, and the race has already begun. Yet, controversially, they could have access to a plentiful supply of the most invaluable resource in the technological age: data. With significant concerns about the future of elections integrity and privacy, entrusting all of this data to a singular company or group of countries could have drastic consequences on the current global privacy environment. If Facebook and Google can botch the personal data of millions of Americans in the year 2019, the thought of a world with even more data handled by a handful of firms should terrify humanity.

Military Activity

According to a February 2018 report from U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, China and Russia are both working on anti-satellite weapons “that could blind or damage sensitive, space-based optical sensors, such as those used for remote sensing or missile defense.” Though the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans its parties from stationing weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on any celestial body, it fails to restrict military activities or the placement of conventional weapons in space. Physical combat risks creating space debris, which, if they collide with one another, could trigger the Kessler syndrome. This, in short, would eliminate all outer space activities, like space exploration and the use of satellites, for generations to come. 

An example of the Kessler Syndrome

An example of the Kessler Syndrome

Cyber warfare could also be used to sabotage and outright destroy satellites. Satellites form a complex network that allows our everyday lives to proceed without impediment, and any disruption as a result of cyber warfare should concern the world. In 2008, the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety released a report stating that the amount of debris orbiting the earth has reached a dire level and, on behalf of the association’s director, warning that a “[F]ailure to act now to regulate space to protect property and human life would be pure folly.”Ten years have passed with no action, so new legislation needs to be crafted at the domestic and international levels in order to better mitigate the consequences. If not, we could enter a new age of military activity with vaster consequences than possibly even nuclear warfare. 

Resource Exploitation and Environmental Protection

To many, space represents a boundless opportunity for exploitation. The logic is simple: Earth has a finite number of resources, while space, going on into infinitum, possesses untold amounts unfathomable to mankind. In fact, a recent study suggested that mining asteroids rich in resources like platinum and water might actually be cleaner and better for the environment. According to existing regulations, “extra-terrestrial forms of life are only deemed worth protecting if they can be scientifically investigated.” These loose rules, however, do not include any underlying consequences for doing so, and with them in place, entrepreneurs may see space exploitation as both a means to enhance their own bottom line and feed their inherent capitalistic desires, possibly leading to the rapid industrialization of space. After all, when deciding between economic growth and environmental protection, the former almost always prevails. This could wreak havoc on extraterrestrial objects and create unforeseen consequences for humanity as well as any other species that inhabit this universe not yet known to human civilization, and it can do so on a scale larger than Earth’s current environmental crisis.

Furthermore, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX have also set their sights on space tourism, which has been projected as a $3 billion market by 2030. In September 2018, SpaceX announced plans to send the first ever private tourist to fly around the moon in 2023. Despite its economic potential and its game-changing effect on global travel, not to mention the anticipated $20 million fee per space tourist, there has been a failure to recognize that frequent trips to and from space could accelerate the decay of the Earth’s environment. We are already on track to increase the global temperature by three degrees, and space tourism would only add to that number given the immense expenditure of fuel and emissions used to bring people to space. This could be catastrophic. To the greatest extent, it might create an opportunity for the companies involved in space travel to create a cruelly ironic situation where the wealthy would seek refuge among the stars using these companies’ products as the earth dies as a result of these companies’ own actions.  

The Future

So many other questions have yet to be answered. Will space tourists be considered “astronauts,” and thus be covered under the Rescue Agreement? How will the world ensure that space debris gets cleaned up? What will the consequences be for countries that do not ratify space treaties and conduct space activity?

Humanity is on the doorsteps of venturing far and wide throughout the final frontier like never before, and it will change the way we see and think of the universe around us. Without updates to international law, the ensuing developments could pose major problems to how countries go about their extraterrestrial ambitions and could make the near future more uncertain that what it looks like today.

Further Reading

Why 2019 is shaping up to be a stellar year for space exploration

The Real Reasons We Explore Space

The Global Race to Space

How Religious Extremism Taints Holy Months

How Religious Extremism Taints Holy Months

The Lingering Dream of an East African Federation

The Lingering Dream of an East African Federation