At Davos, a fervent hope that earthly politics won’t spread to space

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Political turmoil forced leaders of the US, France, and the UK to skip this year’s World Economic Forum. Meanwhile, Davos attendees considered how to stop that from turmoil reaching space.

At a panel today (Jan. 24) chaired by Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney on “entering a new space age,” industry players argued that space exploration could be both a cooperative endeavor and a testing ground for a better way of doing politics.

This year’s gathering of international power-brokers has been dominated by concerns over a US-China trade war, political instability in major countries, the increasing pace of climate change, and a slowdown in economic growth. But today’s speakers argued that these earthly problems need not translate to the field of space exploration where, according to Sarah Al Amiri, minister of State for Advanced Sciences of the United Arab Emirates, conflict and isolationist behaviors are “not to the benefit of any nation.” That, Al Amiri explained, is because the cost of space research and innovation “cannot be sustained by any one entity,” and “the risk of not collaborating far outweighs any nationalistic approach.” 

Al Amiri’s fellow panelists agreed that working together in space is in the interest of every actor involved, bringing up the historical example of the US and Soviet Union working together on the International Space Station, even as the Cold War raged below them on Earth.

Yet, they also voiced concerns that the current legal framework outlining what countries can and cannot do in space is “ambiguous” and inadequate for the pace of research and innovation. Alice Bunn, international director of the UK’s space agency,  said that “regulation in the space environment has been pretty effective to date,” but that many laws are out dated. Richard Ambrose, executive vice president for Space Systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, agreed, saying that “the innovatory pace is way out of the regulatory environment.”

Al Amiri expressed concerns that any future framework regulating space shouldn’t penalize smaller players to the benefit of large countries or companies who already have access to space. Currently, she said, “If you have access to space, you can literally go there and do anything.” Bunn said there were obvious areas of cooperation, when exploration was done “in the interest of all mankind,” but acknowledged the world community doesn’t yet know how to deal with countries or companies acting solely for economic gain. As Al Amiri explained, new legislation governing space resources is crucial, because “we’re at a point where we’re relying on the [goodwill] of the players entering” the field. 

There are still few concrete ideas on how to do this. The panelists all stressed the need to allow the private and public sector to work together, as well as level the playing field to avoid discriminating against smaller actors in the new space age. Ambrose explained that allowing more actors into space benefits everyone: “For a new space age to exist, we need a dynamic marketplace…so we need to bring people in.” But ultimately, the responsibility to regulate what countries and companies do above Earth should fall on governments and international institutions like the United Nations.

The panelists stressed that time is of the essence in ensuring that effective regulations are in place to govern human activity in space. As Al Amiri explained: “Our lives depend on space assets, whether we know it or not.”