Pon­der­ing our fu­ture in space

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - Opinion - The Con­ver­sa­tion The Con­ver­sa­tion is an in­de­pen­dent and non­profit source of news, anal­y­sis and com­men­tary from aca­demic ex­perts. Scott Shack­elford In­di­ana Univer­sity

The an­nals of sci­ence fic­tion are full of vi­sions of the fu­ture. Some are techno-utopian like “Star Trek” in which hu­man­ity has joined to­gether in peace to ex­plore the cos­mos. Oth­ers are dystopian, like the World State in “Brave New World.” But many of these sto­ries share one thing in com­mon – they en­vi­sion a time in which hu­man­ity has moved past nar­row ideas of tribe and na­tion­al­ism. That as­sump­tion might be wrong.

This can be seen in Trump’s calls for a uni­fied U.S. Space Com­mand. Or, in China’s ex­pan­sive view of sovereignty and in­creas­ingly ac­tive space pro­gram as seen in its re­cent lu­nar land­ing. These ex­am­ples sug­gest that the no­tion of outer space as a fi­nal fron­tier free from na­tional ap­pro­pri­a­tion is ques­tion­able. Ac­tive de­bate is on­go­ing as of this writ­ing as to the con­sis­tency of the 2015 Space Act with in­ter­na­tional space law, which per­mit­ted pri­vate firms to own nat­u­ral re­sources mined from as­ter­oids. Some fac­tions in Con­gress would like to go fur­ther still with one bill, the Amer­i­can Space Com­merce Free En­ter­prise Act. This states, “Notwith­stand­ing any other pro­vi­sion of law, outer space shall not be con­sid­ered a global com­mons.” This trend, es­pe­cially among the space pow­ers, is im­por­tant since it not only will cre­ate prece­dents that could res­onate for decades to come, but also be­cause it hin­ders our abil­ity to ad­dress com­mon chal­lenges.

In 1959, then-Sen. Lyn­don John­son stated, “Men who have worked to­gether to reach the stars are not likely to de­scend to­gether into the depths of war and des­o­la­tion.” In this spirit, be­tween 1962 and 1979 the United States and the for­mer Soviet Union worked to­gether and through the U.N. Com­mit­tee for the Peace­ful Uses of Outer Space to en­act five ma­jor treaties and nu­mer­ous bi­lat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral agree­ments con­cern­ing outer space.

Progress ground to a halt when it came time to de­cide on the le­gal sta­tus of the moon. The Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion ob­jected to the Moon Treaty, which stated that the moon was the “com­mon her­itage of mankind” like the deep seabed, in part be­cause of lob­by­ing from groups op­posed to the treaty’s pro­vi­sions. Be­cause no or­ga­nized ef­fort arose in sup­port of the treaty, it died in the U.S. Se­nate, and with it the golden age of space law. To­day, nearly 30 years after it was first pro­posed, only 18 na­tions have rat­i­fied the ac­cord.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union space gov­er­nance has only got­ten more com­pli­cated due to an in­creas­ing num­ber of space pow­ers, both pub­lic and pri­vate. Na­tional and com­mer­cial in­ter­ests are in­creas­ingly tied to space in po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and mil­i­tary are­nas. Be­yond fan­ci­ful no­tions of so­lar en­ergy satel­lites, fu­sion en­ergy and or­bit­ing ho­tels, con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal is­sues such as nu­clear non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, cy­ber­se­cu­rity and hu­man rights are also tied to outer space.

The list of lead­ing space pow­ers has ex­panded be­yond the U.S. and Rus­sia to in­clude China, In­dia, Ja­pan and mem­bers of the Euro­pean Space Agency – es­pe­cially France, Ger­many and Italy. Each reg­u­larly spends over $1 bil­lion on their space pro­grams, with es­ti­mates of China’s space spend­ing sur­pass­ing $8 bil­lion in 2017, though the U.S. con­tin­ues to spend more than all other na­tions com­bined on space re­lated ef­forts. But space has be­come im­por­tant to ev­ery na­tion that re­lies on ev­ery­thing from weather fore­cast­ing to satel­lite telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Pri­vate com­pa­nies, such as SpaceX, are work­ing to dra­mat­i­cally lower the cost of launch­ing pay­loads into low Earth or­bit. Such in­no­va­tion holds the prom­ise of open­ing up space to new de­vel­op­ment. It also raises con­cerns over the sus­tain­abil­ity of space op­er­a­tions.

At the same time, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pub­lic de­sire to launch a Space Force has fu­eled con­cerns over a new arms race, which, if cre­ated, could ex­ac­er­bate both the is­sues of space weapons and de­bris. The two is­sues are re­lated since the use of weapons in space can in­crease the amount of de­bris through frag­ments from de­stroyed satel­lites. For ex­am­ple, China per­formed a suc­cess­ful anti-satel­lite test in 2007 that de­stroyed an ag­ing weather satel­lite at an al­ti­tude of some 500 miles. This sin­gle event con­trib­uted more than 35,000 pieces of or­bital de­bris.

The tragedy of the com­mons sce­nario refers to the “un­con­strained con­sump­tion of a shared re­source — a pas­ture, a high­way, a server — by in­di­vid­u­als act­ing in ra­tio­nal pur­suit of their self-in­ter­est,” ac­cord­ing to com­mons gov­er­nance ex­pert Brett Frischmann. This can and of­ten does lead to de­struc­tion of the re­source. Given that space is largely an open-ac­cess sys­tem, the pre­dic­tions of the tragedy of the com­mons are self-ev­i­dent.

But luck­ily, there is a way out of this sce­nario be­sides ei­ther na­tion­al­iza­tion or pri­va­ti­za­tion. Schol­ars led by the po­lit­i­cal econ­o­mist and No­bel lau­re­ate Eli­nor Ostrom mod­i­fied the tragedy of the com­mons by show­ing that, in some cases, groups can and do self-or­ga­nize and co­op­er­ate to avoid tragic over ex­ploita­tion.

Al­ready, we are see­ing some ev­i­dence of the ben­e­fits of such a poly­cen­tric ap­proach in an in­creas­ingly mul­ti­po­lar era in which there are more and more power cen­ters emerg­ing around the world. One ex­am­ple is a code of con­duct for space-far­ing na­tions. Fur­ther progress could be made by build­ing on the suc­cess of the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion that built the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion such as by deep­en­ing part­ner­ships with firms like SpaceX and Blue Ori­gin.

This is not a “keep it sim­ple, stupid” re­sponse to the chal­lenges in space gov­er­nance. But it does rec­og­nize the re­al­ity of con­tin­ued na­tional con­trol over space op­er­a­tions for the fore­see­able fu­ture, and in­deed there are some ben­e­fits to such an out­come, in­clud­ing ac­count­abil­ity. But we should think long and hard be­fore mov­ing away from a tried and tested model like the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion and to­ward a fu­ture of vy­ing na­tional re­search sta­tions and even mil­i­tary out­posts in space.

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