Space, the Final Frontier for Governance

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 6/14/2011 12:01:00 AM
Remember when we did the moonshot and Pony Trekker led the way?
We'd move to the Canaveral moonstop and everynaut would dance and sway
We got music in our solar system; we're space truckin' round the stars
Come on...let's go...Space Truckin'!

How do we keep on space truckin' in the 21st century? It's not a hypothetical question. With real-estate here on earth becoming increasingly scarse and with climate change threatening to make things worse, it was perhaps natural that its denizens would search the heavens for relief. Among today's most interesting challenges for global governance are issues which do not map neatly onto national boundaries. Global warming is indifferent to where carbon emanates from. The Internet is compelling countries to quash notions of extraterritoriality when it suits them--ask Hillary "Internet Freedom" Clinton, for example.

And then there's the issue of carving up space. Earlier on, the Soviets were keen on extending the territorially-bound notion of airspace into further reaches until they too discovered the joys of satellite spying. With decades of space activity under the belt, we have now bumped up against limits of existing governance regimes: How can traffic jams be avoided in outer space? What areas can be used for orbiting satellites? What is to be done with space debris? To these questions we must now add a few more: What about mining rights... on the moon? Who will regulate space tourism? Certainly Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic fame will have interest in responses to the latter.

These questions verging on--you guessed it--interstellar overdrive should be very interesting to IPE Zone readers who I assume are interested in global governance issues. Fortunately, there is a fine introductory article in our alumni newsletter LSE Connect that begins to tackle these questions from Jill Stuart on "cosmic governance" (gotta love the jargon). It is not only on earth with the emergence of major emerging economies that the status quo is being disputed:
Where next for issues of outer space ownership? Several questions promise to rear their head in the next decade. As more and more countries develop space-faring capabilities (and particularly developing countries leading in this area, such as China, India and Brazil), matters regarding orbital overcrowding, debris, and right-to-access will become more pressing. Space tourism into Low-Earth Orbit, by companies such as Virgin Galactic, will also likely require a clarification of the boundary between air- and outer-space – up until now planes flew low enough, and satellites high enough, to avoid addressing the question more thoroughly – but space tourism vehicles will fly/orbit in the grey area. Several private companies have also recently expressed an interest in mining the moon – and the introduction of non-state actors into outer space activities is likely to pattern future developments in legislation over the region. In short, a new treaty clarifying mining rights and obligations is needed.

Sputnik disintegrated in the Earth’s atmosphere in January 1958, after spending three months in orbit. The last American space shuttle mission is due to launch later this year, after which the entire fleet of vehicles will be retired. Landmark events such as these leave a legacy of legal, political and philosophical questions for humankind. In the near future we will need to readdress the question first raised 60 years ago: who owns outer space?
To boldly go where no regulator has gone before may not have the faded romance of naive American universalism, but it's an important activity nonetheless.