And many of us are able to live and thrive partly because satellites help farmers assess climate and growing conditions and decide which areas are best for cultivation, while also alerting them to unfavorable weather conditions or predictions of longer-term drought. Looking ahead, space commercialization — asteroid mining, manufacturing and scientific research — will require vast amounts of capital and the hiring of skilled labor, creating both wealth and jobs.
But if private companies are to make meaningful progress in space exploration, we need the government to help. As President Biden develops his plans to address climate change and other Earth-bound challenges, he would be wise to consider space policy as an extension of his commitments.
Satellite data, for instance, is crucial to understanding the consequences of climate change and our ability to measure mitigation efforts in the future. Yet satellites are vulnerable to both electronic hacks and physical attacks, and there is no international law protecting them. The ability of the United States or other countries to enforce any of the existing rules related to satellites is limited. The United States must work with international bodies, like the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and the Committee for Peaceful Uses of Space, to establish clear and enforceable guidelines and laws that regulate satellite activity and punish interference by malicious actors
Globally, we should look to successful treaties that govern air traffic and maritime navigation. If a tanker crashed into another, we know which laws apply. But if a satellite crashes into another nation’s space debris, the issues are murkier. Domestically, The Department of Commerce, rather than NASA and the Pentagon, should be charged with creating conditions that encourage private investment and safety in space. Placing responsibility for something as critical as debris tracking and warning notifications for civil, commercial and international space actors would use the Department of Commerce’s experience in managing and tracking data related to the free flow of commercial business. We should begin work on an international understanding of space before a major collision occurs that we all will lament was predictable.
Critically important to the success of the commercialization of space is that no one company or country monopolizes development of any segment, capability or zone of space. Competition will ensure future success, enhance innovation and protect ongoing development from a single point of failure or catastrophic event. Until now, space has been a zone of international cooperation. But advances in space technology and geopolitical events on Earth could imperil future cooperation and access.
We must encourage all space-faring countries to create international norms and behaviors.
This won’t be easy, of course. We need to figure out who gets access to what, how to deter misconduct and how to work together in a fraught diplomatic environment. We need global and domestic treaties and agencies that can resolve conflicts and questions such as: Who can mine on the moon for the rare-earth metals eagerly sought for cell phone and battery production? And how can we extract and share the moon’s oxygen and water resources for the purpose of making fuel to power outer space travel? Greater certainty on matters like these will help to build confidence in the new space economy.
As the owner of a space technology company, I believe space presents a chance for the United States to make the Earth a greener place and build new international partnerships. What if, by establishing global cooperation on space guidelines, the resulting progress and working relationships on this exciting new frontier could help foster peace? Space could be a place not only to pursue our dreams, but to solve our earthly problems.