Why we need international standards to regulate the space race
With the increase in human activity in space, humanity risks repeating the mistakes that resulted in unbridled competition for scarce resources leading to wars, former U.S. Ambassador W. Robert Pearson told a Duke panel on space diplomacy.
According to the panel, more and more national and private actors are making claims to resources that have to function within a more robust regulatory framework. The event, co-sponsored by Duke in DC, was the first in a new series on space diplomacy organized by the DUCIGS Rethinking Diplomacy Program.
Whether this uncontrolled competition will lead to future conflict or an agreed set of international norms depends on how quickly diplomacy is able to reach sufficient consensus, the panelists said.
The astrophysicist Benjamin Schmitt said at the event that there was a lack of current standards. The 1967 Space Treaty, among other things, does not cover many of the elements of commercial operations by private companies or conventional weapons in space, Schmitt said.
The astronomer from UNC Asheville, Prof. Britt Lundgren, moderated the event with Schmitt and Pearson, both fellows of the DUCIGS / Rethinking Diplomacy Program.
Pearson said three truths from the 15th century European age of global exploration offer lessons for regulating space exploration today: the countries with access to the new territory became major players in global affairs for the next 500 years; Conflicts in the new territories did not stay there but reverberated and returned to produce wars at home; and private companies played a tremendous role in shaping trade and international relationships.
“Now as then,” he said, “uncontrolled competition can easily lead to conflict.”
The unprecedented escalation of activities, actors, and use of technology in lower Earth orbit and deeper space “establishes the order we have seen since the end of the Apollo program,” said Benjamin Schmitt, postdoctoral researcher and project development scientist at Harvard. Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
This expanding space race includes both commercial companies investing in space projects – Elon Musk’s Space X, for example – and nation-state programs like the US-led Artemis Accords. This alliance of western countries aims to bring people back to the moon by 2024. In addition, regulatory standards are to be set that recognize the right of private companies to benefit from space resources. Russia and China have announced that they will pursue a competing space program.
“This will test the international agreements that were written long ago – including the Lunar Accord of the late 1970s – that really weren’t really and meaningfully put to the test because there was no human activity on the moon to to test it, ”added Schmitt.
International agreements and treaties take time, Pearson said, easily a decade or more, and in the meantime we need a set of norms of behavior to address the most pressing problems in space, such as satellites, which are at risk of collision both in space and on Earth represent (as described by Schmitt and Pearson in a new article in Foreign Policy).
Setting rules and best practices on such issues “would create what we call ‘transparent and trust-building measures’ that could help set the norms of behavior that would guide us,” Pearson said.
Among the emerging issues that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty – essentially an arms control treaty – did not address is the placement or use of non-nuclear weapons in space.
NATO can help set the stage for productive talks in three ways: NATO’s space policy states that the Alliance “has no intention of putting weapons into space”; it includes space in its defense and deterrence doctrine, thereby placing the issue clearly in the political realm; and it offers the prospect for a collective of NATO, the EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia to take the lead in defining new approaches to space issues. Such an effort could potentially help build consensus at the UN level and spearhead new space laws and regulations.
As an astronomer, Prof. Lundgren expressed the concerns of other key stakeholders: the peoples of the earth, for whom the night sky is central to their cultural heritage, and the scientific community, who rely on clear skies for ground-based observation through telescopes . For example, astronomers’ research – dedicated to answering fundamental questions for all of humanity – and their technological investments “are threatened by increasingly problematic satellite tracks,” she said.
Such concerns reflect access to space as part of the global commons. In this context, Pearson called for a closer look at the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, “which was supposed to prevent a colonialism-like struggle for new territory,” which also became the forerunner of the 1967 Space Treaty, which regulated the use of common resources outside the sovereignty claims of states.
Russia, China, the United States and Japan have policies recognizing the right to exclusive use of the resources discovered.
April 2020, the Trump administration issued an executive order denying the existence of space commons “and saying admitting this would not support private companies,” Pearson said.
To date, the Biden government has not repealed the executive order. The US-led Artemis Agreement also recognizes the right of private companies to benefit from space resources.
“Whenever I talked about history,” said Pearson, “I came across a quote from Mark Twain saying that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. And this time the story will rhyme for sure. “