As private space flight takes off, humanity is rapidly approaching a crossroads in exploring outer space. New space companies such as Elon Musks’ SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin promise great rewards for society in technological advancements.
Yet, some are worried about the potential for environmental damage and increased wealth inequality. Space law is still currently being drafted. What the government dictates will define the nature of space exploration and, therefore, the future of humanity’s presence in outer space.
New Space Companies
“New space” is the term being used to refer to the development of private space flight and the future commercialization of outer space. Most notably, new space companies include SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk; Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos; and Virgin Galactic, run by Richard Branson. These men and their companies are at the forefront of a new era in space exploration, an era that promises to use the power of the market to bring the benefits of space exploration to society.
Each of these new space companies brings their ambitious plans for shaping the future of humanity in space. Richard Branson was onboard for Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed space flight in July of this year. The company has plans to establish orbital tourism and is currently booking seats at the bargain price of $450,000 apiece. Once Virgin Galactic is up and running, Branson plans to offer 400 flights each year.
Branson hopes that the people who experience Virgin Galactic’s low orbit flight will be inspired to protect and preserve the Earth. After his trip to outer space in July, Branson affirmed: “I want people to be able to look back at our beautiful Earth and come home and work very hard to try to do magic to it to look after it.”
Elon Musk, on the other hand, has several ambitious plans for SpaceX. The space exploration company has developed an innovative range of reusable rockets for carrying cargo and crew. The company is also working to create Starlink, a low orbit satellite constellation that will provide global internet access, even in rural areas.
Like Branson, Musk’s plans include orbital tourism. While Musk hasn’t been to space himself, in 2020, his rockets became part of the first-ever private space flite to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. Before that, Musk made headlines in 2018 when SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster into space with a dummy in the passenger seat.
These projects are the steppingstones for Musk’s ultimate goal of colonizing other planets. Musk wants to make humanity a multi-planet species by creating bases on Mars and even potentially terraforming the planet to make it habitable for humans.
Like Musk, Jeff Bezos also has dreams of seeing humanity colonize outer space. Bezos wants to see Blue Origin’s reusable rockets to expand the horizons of humankind. The Amazon founder believes this expansion into the cosmos is necessary for the preservation of Earth because of the rapidly increasing needs of humanity.
Recently, Bezos was onboard the Shepard rocket for Blue Origin’s first crewed space flight. The flight took place just nine days after Branson’s flight in July. Since his return, Bezos has talked energetically about moving polluting industries into outer space.
The Potential Value of Private Space Flight
If successful, these companies and the many other emerging space companies have the potential to revolutionize the way we live. As the standard of living increases across the world, humanity will need more and more resources.
Projects that harvest resources like minerals or energy from outer space could meet humanity’s growing needs and even create abundance as humanity has never seen before. As Bezos mentions, Earth could potentially mitigate the climate crisis by moving all polluting industries outside Earth’s atmosphere.
Space exploration has always created advancements in science, technology, and manufacturing. This progress could increase exponentially as the market drives competition among new space companies. Technological advances have the potential to affect far more than just the space travel industry. In the past, space exploration has impacted diverse fields such as digital imaging, food safety, computer science, robotics, and much more.
No one legally owns outer space. The galaxy is considered a global common like the deep ocean, Antarctica, and the atmosphere. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty protects this status.
If outer space remains protected by space law, as a global commons, it will be a place without borders that can be used to benefit all humanity. All nations can manage their resources democratically, ensuring that they are used responsibly, sustainably, and for the common good.
The Uncertainty of Outer Space and The Uniqueness of Earth
The idea that we will one day be able to move off-planet to live in space stations or colonize other planets is inspiring, but also potentially dangerous. As climate change continues to threaten our ability to thrive on Earth, it’s tempting to think that space exploration will inevitably save us.
Progress in space exploration will undoubtedly continue. Yet, it’s important not to think of the Earth as replaceable. Our planet is truly unique, and humanity depends on its health.
People and industries must do everything to ensure that our planet remains a sustainable, healthy home. Humanity’s potential for survival in space should not reduce the urgency to address issues like climate change or micro-plastics.
The truth is that we don’t know how long it might be before it’s viable for large numbers of people to live off-planet for extended periods. Or even if it will ever be possible. Many problems are yet to be understood well enough to say that we will overcome them. Humans evolved for life on this planet, and artificially replicating the systems that make life possible will cost enormous sums of resources.
For example, humans don’t respond well to extended periods of weightlessness that astronauts experience in outer space. Weightlessness typically results in weakening bones, blood circulation problems, and many other health issues.
Space is also full of dangerous radiation that is blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere. This is all in addition to the range of life support systems needed to maintain oxygen levels, atmospheric pressure, and temperature. While there is great value in overcoming these problems, we must not let it reduce our efforts to protect Earth and ensure it remains habitable for humanity.
Skepticism About New Space Companies
New space company owners like Musk, Bezos, and Branson are famous for pitching their private space flight ventures as passion projects for humanity’s good. As we have seen, there are many ways these companies might make life better for everyone on Earth. But it’s important to remember that these businesses intend to return a profit. Like any other business, they have the potential to make a positive or negative impact on the world.
Some remain unconvinced that the activities of new space companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origins, and SpaceX are quite as selfless as they claim. In July, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson made headlines when they both boarded their companies rockets for their first space flights in the same month. These launches marked breakthroughs in both companies’ pursuit of private space flight. Yet, they also triggered a backlash from the public, which suddenly became more vocal about their disapproval through social media.
While many excitedly follow the developments of new space companies, others question the value these companies will bring to the average person. Many are concerned that these companies will create a market that favors the ultra-wealthy with little value trickling down to the typical person. Others see the billions being spent and think that money could do more for the world if spent on sustainable energy projects, ending extreme poverty, or fighting world hunger.
The Need for Space Law
If left unchecked by regulation and space law, there is a possibility that new space companies will place immense power in the hands of a small number of billionaires. The massive upfront costs mean that private space flight is already the domain of the ultra-wealthy. If their ventures in space are successful, these individuals stand to profit immensely from brand new industries. This could make it challenging for competition to get a foothold in these new industries.
If a company can dominate a space industry like mining the moon or asteroids, transportation, or solar energy collection, that company would have an influence never seen before.
Imagine the power of a company that owned a space station through which all outer space traffic passed. Or a business that controls access to the most abundant source of energy in the solar system, the sun. Those companies would make massive profits and have a considerable influence both in space and on Earth. This dynamic would exasperate the already worsening problem of wealth inequality as well.
Up until now, new space companies have been allowed to operate without any restrictions. Current space law regulating private space flight is very minimal. This was purposefully done so that regulation would not stifle innovation in a new and challenging industry. But this policy is becoming risky as these companies increase their presence in space.
In these early days of space exploration, we do not fully understand the repercussions of our actions in outer space and its celestial bodies. There is always the risk that if we act without enough information, we might cause irreparable damage. Therefore, some say that we need a regulating body to ensure that our presence in space is sustainable and in line with its protected status as a global common.
The Dangers of Space Junk
For an example of the damage that could be caused by the negligence of a single new space company, we need to look no further than low orbit. Low orbit is where most manufactured objects which have been sent to space reside.
Over the years, as more and more satellites have entered orbit, this area has become dangerously crowded with what is known as space junk. There are over 6,500 satellites currently in orbit, only half of which are operational, but there are an estimated 100 million objects over the size of one millimeter. Since these pieces of debris are moving at thousands of miles an hour, any one of them is sufficient to destroy a satellite or even the International Space Station if they collide.
This debris field has been created in part by the purposeful destruction of satellites. It’s also used for testing military anti-satellite defenses and to avoid accidental collision of satellites. Each time a satellite is destroyed in a crash or test, they break up into thousands of tiny pieces, which become impossible to track accurately. Only around 27,000 pieces of space junk are currently being tracked.
Space junk represents a massive danger to astronauts and the operation of essential satellites. But the real threat comes from the possibility of a runaway event called the Kessler Syndrome. The Kessler Syndrome theory predicts that a single collision in our orbit could set off a chain reaction of collisions that grows to destroy every satellite in orbit. This could even prevent humanity from ever reaching space again if the cloud of debris becomes too dense.
The reason people are worried about the Kessler Syndrome is that each collision creates thousands of additional pieces of debris. Debris has the potential of bringing down another object, releasing even more junk. It’s in this way that a runaway chain reaction could quickly destroy every orbiting object.
Space junk is not a problem with a simple solution. Right now, we don’t have a way to clean up our mess. Despite this, Elon Musk seems undaunted in his plans to launch 12,000 satellites to space to create the Starlink satellite constellation, which will provide access to the internet in remote areas.
This is a prime example of the need for a regulating body and space law. Any misstep by SpaceX in the deployment of Starlink could spell disaster. The triggering of a Kessler Syndrome event would do unimaginable damage to Earth’s communication and global positioning infrastructure. Yet, there is currently no independent regulating body to manage this issue.
What Can Be Done to Protect Outer Space as a Global Common?
Private space flight is currently regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But the FAA is only focused on protecting the public during takeoff and reentry.
Humanity needs an international regulating body tasked with preserving the status of outer space as a global common. This regulating body can maintain the ideals outlined in the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty by ensuring the safety and sustainability of any operations carried out in space. Additionally, this regulatory group can ensure that new space companies use space to benefit humanity rather than strictly for their profit.
With thoughtful space law, private space flight can be both profitable and sustainable. The proper regulations will avoid stifling innovations while protecting delicate ecosystems. For example, a new outer space regulating body would have the power to implement rules and taxes regarding the creation of space junk. The proper regulations would reduce the chance of creating a runaway Kessler syndrome event without overly restrictive conditions for companies launching satellites and other objects into orbit.
Space exploration is high risk and high reward but if appropriately regulated, new space companies have the potential to develop an amazing value for humanity. By harvesting minerals and energy in space, businesses can create an abundance of resources, which humanity has never known before. Along the way, innovation could lead to new technologies that forever change the way we live our lives.
For more information on what efforts are underway to build a framework for space law, you can visit the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs website. This branch of the UN is the largest group currently working to ensure that outer space is preserved as a global common.