Contributors: Madeleine Chang, Carson Ezell, Olaf Willner
The New Frontier
Humanity has long been progressing towards new frontiers, whether terrestrial (e.g., colonization) or scientific and technological (e.g., industrialization). We are now reaching a stage of planetary closure. Almost all of earth’s terrestrial space has been explored, with much of it developed. Our technological ‘progress’ poses growing existential risks of planetary catastrophe, including climate change, nuclear weapons, and artificial intelligence.
Outer space is becoming the new frontier, both in terms of terrain to explore and scientific and technological challenges to conquer. SpaceX is planning a crewed mission to Mars before the end of the decade, and NASA plans to get humans to Mars in the 2030s. Astronomical research has been done on potentially habitable celestial bodies, including Jupiter’s moon Europa. Initiatives such as Breakthrough Starshot are proposing exploration at interstellar distances, and the Kardashev scale lays out a roadmap for humanity to become an interstellar species.
There are many potential activities which humans could conduct in outer space. Space settlements can be created on the moon, Mars, or beyond to support scientific research, tourism, or permanent settlement. Radio silence on the dark side of the moon would allow for better astronomical observation. Probes from our civilization can explore our galaxy. Space mining activities on asteroids or the Moon can generate vast amounts of wealth and critical resources. For example, water ice in lunar craters can be harvested and used as rocket propellant to travel further distances, and helium-3 on the moon can be used to generate energy via nuclear fusion. Space-based energy, including helium-3 or solar, can be captured and sent back to earth to sustainably fulfill our energy needs. These activities are only a starting point for what the scientific, technological, and commercial communities are envisioning.
The Need for Foresight
There are grave risks to exploring the possibilities in space without sufficient foresight. Conflicts will inevitably rise between competing interests. Some resources in space are scarce—there have already been conflicts over radio frequencies and orbital slots. Similar conflicts will likely arise over critical resources such as lunar water ice, or strategic positions such as the moon’s south pole and the Lagrange points. Scientific and commercial interests will also conflict, including where radio silence zones will compete with commercial development interests.
Diplomatic conflicts over space access and space militarization increase the risk of great power conflict on earth. The United States describes space as “contested, congested, and competitive”, and similar rhetoric is used globally. Space-based assets are inherently vulnerable to a variety of attacks, both kinetic and cyber. Attribution of attacks on space-based assets is often hard, making enforcement of rules more difficult without trust mechanisms. Great power conflict could be catastrophic, including the potential use of nuclear weapons. Space-based technologies, such as asteroid capture or deflection, could also be used in the future to cause catastrophic damage on earth.
The space domain also accelerates the development of potentially harmful technologies which may have implications and use cases on earth. Humanity is not biologically adapted for survival in space, so large-scale biological, environmental, or technological projects would be required for sustainable, self-sufficient human survival. Genetic engineering may be used to make humans biologically more resilient to conditions on other celestial bodies, such as high radiation and low oxygen. Terraforming projects could fundamentally transform celestial bodies to make them more suitable for human life, such as introducing high concentrations of carbon dioxide and other molecules into the atmosphere to influence the temperature and block harmful radiation. Robots and artificial intelligence can also be used to perform most work in space, allowing humans to stay in shelters where they are protected from hostile conditions. Self-replicating technologies have also been proposed, where copies of equipment are made using celestial resources. Self-replicating probes for space exploration could cover more area and account for the possibility of damage from atmospheric dust or space objects, and self-expanding industry would limit how many payloads need to be launched from earth for massive-scale development in space.
The technologies listed above may raise ethical concerns, particularly in the case of genetic engineering. They may also pose great harm to humanity if used on earth, including major atmospheric modifications that do not undergo rigorous testing and studies beforehand. Early space colonies will be dependent on earth and in close communication, so the terrestrial application of these technologies is highly likely. As a result, spacefaring may increase rather than decrease the existential risks posed to humanity in the short- and intermediate-term. Space colonization may decrease the risk of human extinction in the long term by ensuring we do not have our “eggs in one basket”, but a spacefaring humanity would not protect civilization from existential risk until space colonies are self-sufficient. This will likely occur decades or centuries after our first space colonies.
Where We Are
Although there are many uncertainties within space governance, there are several assumptions and observations we can make for certain:
First, there is no strong global authority to address space-related issues. Although the United Nations exists as a home for international dialogue, its enforcement mechanisms are weak, especially in outer space. As a result, international space law has not kept pace with scientific and commercial developments. The backbone of international space legislation is the Outer Space Treaty, which was passed in 1967 and has several interpretations, especially for issues such as space mining. Space-related discussions at the UN are also distributed among several bodies. Civil and commercial space activities are regulated by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOUPOS), radio frequencies and orbital slots are allocated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and military space discussions fall to the gridlocked Conference on Disarmament. Proposed international treaties by adversarial alliances have been regularly rejected over the past couple decades, leading to a trend of “minilateralism”, such as coordination of national legislation on space commerce and the United States-led Artemis Accords.
Second, we are bound only by the laws of physics. Humans have shown a great capacity to control most known physical phenomena, placing extremely high limits on our potential technological development and capacity for space exploration. Technologies such as nuclear propulsion may allow us to travel farther than before into the vastness of space, and we may eventually be able to leverage physical phenomena that still puzzle modern physicists, such as dark matter or anti-matter, to travel even quicker. With cosmological quantities of energy, our computing power could accomplish limitless tasks with major complications, including sentient simulations.
Third, we have a long way to go. Current estimates suggest the Earth will remain habitable for the next hundreds of millions of years. In a scenario where humanity lives for the next 800,000 years, there would be 100 trillion people alive over that period. In other words, the vast majority of humans have yet to be born. This observation has important implications for space governance: space exploration only started roughly 60 years ago - a drop in the ocean when looking at our potential future. Humanity’s presence in outer space is only at the very beginning, so it is important to start thinking about what we want this future to look like. If our future in space has a high quality of life, then humanity has an astronomically bright future. However, poor governance and foresight could also mean astronomical suffering for future generations. In the dawn of humanity’s days as a spacefaring nation, we have our best opportunity to lock in our optimal solutions for long term space governance.
The Role of Space Governance
Space governance is concerned with the broad questions of rules and norms in space to ensure its exploration and eventual colonization is aligned with the interests of humanity. It explores the possible sources of power and decision-making authority in outer space, the implications and outcomes of certain space activities, the likely future scenarios for a spacefaring humanity, and the outermost limitations on human expansion imposed by scarcity and the laws of physics. It explores space activities across our entire future light cone, from space mining in the next few years to billions of years ahead when humanity may become an intergalactic species.
The goal of space governance is to positively impact humanity’s long term future as a spacefaring species. We do not know for certain how much of an impact our current policy decisions will have on future space exploration and governance. However, there are particular institutional adaptations we can create to ensure we are prepared to address the unique challenges in outer space.
Inclusivity, resilience, and adaptation are core pillars of proper space governance. Space-related scientific and engineering breakthroughs surface quickly, and current governance institutions have proven to be slow in responding to trends. We should ensure that our space governance institutions are quick-responding. Humanity will also likely encounter unexpected events in the space domain, and the COVID-19 pandemic taught us that our institutions are not prepared—we should fix this. Space is also shared by all of humanity, so we should ensure that we are promoting cooperation, transparency, and inclusion of all relevant stakeholders.