Space Commercialisation: My Thoughts

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PIVT Oxford imageI was kindly invited to present on a panel at Pembroke College, Oxford on 23 February 2015. This was for the launch of the PIVT.

Below is the outline of my presentation, which I am happy to share. Please note that these are my notes for the presentation, rather than a direct transcript. I believe that a video of the event will be published online, in time.

Please reference accordingly.

23 February 2015
“Space: A New Entrepreneurial Frontier?”
Dr Jill Stuart
Editor in Chief, Space Policy
Department of Government
London School of Economics

Thank you for having me.

I suspect this is a sympathetic audience, so I am going to play a bit of devil’s advocate.

I want to make three main, inter-related points:

  1. Space commercialisation is not new
  2. It is difficult to define a ‘commercial’ space actor
  3. Legislative frameworks need to continue to develop to account for changes

Point one: Space commercialisation is not new.

This is not to say that there aren’t aspects of this era of commercialisation that are different—which I’ll address further in a moment… but I think individuals fancy seeing themselves at the moment of change, whereafter everything is different. Yet I think we would be better to place ourselves within a historical context.

I feel that, amongst strongly pro-commercialisation advocates, there is a within the discourse the sense that governments, and especially the US, are anti-space-commercialisation. I concede that at times governments have made it difficult to pursue commercial activities, if not even blocking them… but let’s remember the ways in which they have also pushed for them historically. Just a few examples:

  • If you want to go way back, governments contracted out rocket construction during WWII (rockets being the basis for access to earth orbit and beyond).
  • In 1972 US President Nixon banned NASA from using funds for satellite communications R&D, as he felt this should be done by the private sector.
  • There was an explicit government push under Ronald Reagan to expand the private sector’s role while reducing the government role in commercialisation.
  • Under Bill Clinton the Commercialization Space Act of 1998: Says government is to make use of commercial space technology rather than develop it on their own.
  • In the 1990s, it was added to NASA’s charter that it is to encourage space commerce.
  • The first time private investment in space projects and operations exceeded that of governments: 1997.
  • First private manned resupply mission to a space station (Mir): MirCorp in 2000.

What is new about the current era?

There is a lot of buzz about commercial manned space flight. Both in terms of eg Space X potentially sending (government) astronauts to the ISS by 2017, and also in terms of private individuals going as tourists with companies like Virgin Galactic.

However I would also point out that this is not new either. American astronauts flew on the Russian Soyuz capsule to Mir in the 1990s. Russia’s space agency had been partly taken over by a corporation called MirCorp by then.

More obvious, tourists have been going to the Space Station since 2001 with the company Space Adventures. Seven tourists have visited the ISS so far with Space Adventures. The initial price tag was around $10 million for ten days in space… what is new is the reduction of cost and the concept of sub-orbital flights for 6 minutes. This will potentially open up the opportunities to a wider audience—though at current cost of $250,000 a ticket, even these sub-orbital flights is still a very elite audience.

You see companies bubbling up—Mars One, Space Ex is now resupplying the ISS which is impressive… I’m not saying that there aren’t some things about this particular moment that are different—there are. But we need to keep this process in context, and I think it makes most sense in order to understand and even nurture space commercialisation to start with a more historical perspective and timeline.

Point Two: It is difficult to define a ‘commercial space actor’

Again part of this is to play devil’s advocate and challenge the mainstream narratives that I see gaining momentum up around this issue in the media and elsewhere… And I have to say that I find it problematic that we talk as though there are clear boundaries around actors, or even dichotomies:

state/ private

civilian/ profit-making

expensive/ cheap

Quote from Professor Johnson: “To do business in space means doing business with the government, either as a contractor, regulator, or through the many government facilities and institutions involved in space.”

Very, very few entities are exclusively either civilian or government… or private, commercial and profit-making. Governments rely on commercial entities to supply hardware, launches, research, development, information… and this has been the case for a long time.

And conversely, commercial entities often rely on governments—for example, for access to launch pads. Or a satellite may be private but launched into space on government-built hardware.

I certainly don’t think that this is and of itself problem. Indeed if our ultimate goal is to open up space, explore it further, exploit it for human benefit, then these relationships, which create hybrid actors, have largely been successful. But we need to see them as that: hybrid actors and not polarised as ‘one or the other’. This makes understanding them, perhaps nurturing them, and especially legislating them, more difficult.

Just one more point on this on another dichotomy:

safe/ risky

I often get asked if commercialisation is dangerous, as opposed to the more risk-averse ‘safe’ government activities. This particularly came up in the aftermath of the Virgin Galactic crashes when I did a lot of interviews. What I would say is: space is dangerous and risky. It’s difficult to get things, perched on top of highly flammable rocket fuel, outside of earth’s gravitation pull. It’s risky, regardless of what type of entity you are. Governments have had plenty of mis-haps of their own—with both manned and unmanned activities.

What I would say is that perhaps private entities are more likely to experiment with newer, cheaper designs—that’s partly why we want them getting in on the game, right?

But again, this isn’t entirely accurate to attribute this to private actors alone, as governments have also experimented with ‘faster, better, cheaper’ (that being an actual NASA slogan in the 1990s). The ill-fated Beagle mission to Mars, funded by the European Space Agency and developed largely in Britain (and led by the late Colin Philinger), was seen as an experiment in cheaper missions using innovate technology.

So again, I don’t think we can ‘silo’ these characteristics as attributable to either one or the other—commercialisation or government.

And this brings me to my final point.

Point Three:  Legislation and monitoring practices need to continue to evolve in order to keep up with changes. 

Some of you may be familiar with the broader legal framework that governs space. For those who aren’t, I’ll give you a very quick run down:

There are five main treaties, four of which have been ratified.

  1. OST 1967. Neutral territory; ownership
  2. Other one that’s particularly relevant to commercialisation is the Registration Convention… (1975 Convention on the Registration of Objects sent into Outer Space)

Why is this one relevant?

* purpose of an object sent into outer space has to be registered

and

* ‘launching state’ of object must be included.

Thus this legislation is state-centric and difficult with actors that are transnational—commercial or government.

  1. The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects—this addresses liability for damaged caused by space objects, but is more straightforward (or at least, its complications are subsumed within the Registration Issues mentioned above)
  2. Search and Rescue: The 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space
  3. Failed Moon treaty (The 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies)… tells us that we aren’t sure yet what to do about the Moon.

My opinion: we have left the era of Big Treaties. This is not to say that the Treaties in place aren’t useful in establishing a strong legal infrastructure and normative background within which future activity will be embedded… but I doubt we will have any more.

Why? They were established in a state-centric, Cold War context when there were two major space powers who could manipulate and manoeuvre discussions. Now you have not only more states that are interested in space, but also more actors—such as commercial ones.

Evolution of regimes rather than big treaties has been successful in establishing governance over other issue areas, such as the use of radio frequencies for satellites, or the monitoring of Near Earth Objects. Bilateral and multilateral agreements amongst states, as well as those that include non-state actors, have proven successful.

My personal feeling is that it is these sorts of arrangements in the future that will be most successful—because although they can take states into account, they don’t have to be state-centric… if developed successfully they can take into account the interests and needs of a wider range of actors. And if those myriad actors have input into the evolution of the regime, they are more likely to abide by it and for it to therefore have legitimacy. Organisations such as the UN still play a role (UNCOPUOS), but more in terms of establishing guidelines and norms, and providing a platform through which actors can meet to negotiate and discuss.

In conclusion: we should be exploring how a confluence of regimes, agreements, domestic law and private international law can help us to both encourage but also monitor future space activities by the mosaic of actors that are now space-capable and space-interested.

Thank you.

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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.