29 October 2017 “Who Owns Space?” Battle of Ideas, London


I’m looking forward to doing the Battle of Ideas  at the Barbican, London 28 & 29 October 2017 again this year! 

I’m so grateful that Zulfikar Abbany (Senior Science Editor, Deutsche Welle) brought together our panel on “The Final Frontier: Who Owns Space?

Professor Ian Crawford (Professor of planetary science and astrobiology, Birkbeck College)
Mike Lawton (Founder, CEO, Oxford Space Systems)
Dr Saskia Vermeylen (Senior lecturer & Chancellor’s Fellow, Centre for Environmental Law and Governance, University of Strathclyde)
Chair: Timandra Harkness (Journalist, Writer & Broadcaster)



Space has fired human imagination for centuries. Philosophers and astronomers – from the ancients like Ptolemy through to early natural scientists like Copernicus and, a little later, Descartes and Newton – searched the skies for answers to life on Earth. Theirs was a quest for humanity.

But our exploration of space only really took off 60 years ago when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957. The mission sparked a space race between the Americans and the Soviets. By 1961, US President John F Kennedy had decided America had to land a man on the moon. It led to the Apollo missions, achieving Kennedy’s goal in July 1969. It was a competitive time, when innovations in science and technology translated into power.

A lot has happened since then – no more so than in the past few years. Space is still about humanity, science and power. But above all, now it’s about money. We’re in a new space race, where those driving the action are not nations, but a global industry worth billions. Whether it’s Earth observation or plain surveillance, building off-planet colonies like a Moon Village, asteroid mining or tourism for the super-rich, space is ‘open for business’.

Should we worry about the private sector running away with space? Or could it be the best thing to happen to post-Brexit Britain? The UK wants a 10 per cent share of the global space market by 2030, and with the Spaceflight Bill, which sets out how the government plans to regulate launch-to-orbit and sub-orbital spaceflight activities, and plans to build commercial spaceports, it might just do it.

The problem is there’s no space law to keep commercial interests in line. The Outer Space Treaty is as old as the Apollo missions – and it still guides most space activity. It was written during the Cold War to ensure peaceful, non-commercial space exploration, and forbids anyone claiming sovereignty. But its authors did not foresee today’s rapid commercialisation of space.

So, for example, what would happen if a company built hotels on Mars – could they claim ownership of the land? Where would that leave the rest of us – homeless on the one planet that could help our species survive if something goes wrong here on Earth? Should space be viewed like ‘common land’, or would that hold back investment in exploration and colonisation? Are the rich undermining the idea of space exploration for the good of all humanity?

See the Battle of Ideas 2017 website

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Dr Jill Stuart is an academic based at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is an expert in the politics, ethics and law of outer space exploration and exploitation. She is a frequent presence in the global media (print, radio, television, documentary) and regularly gives lectures around the world. From 2013-2017 she was Editor in Chief of the Elsevier journal Space Policy where she remains on the Editorial Board. She is also on the Board of Advisors of METI International, conducting scientific research into messaging potential extraterrestrial intelligence. She is one of an elite number of people to be endorsed by the UK Home Office as an Exceptional Talent Migrant/ World Leader in her Field. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Margaret Mead Award Lecture by the British Science Association in recognition of her cutting edge research. She is trained in both domestic and international mediation and has done consultancy work for the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. She has a sub-specialism in women, peace and security and gender based violence. She is a Trustee of Luton All Women’s Centre.


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