Space exploration, as I see it, is the last true peaceful international collaboration on Earth.
I understand this claim is bound to invoke some scoffs from readers—the Cold War space race, for one, was characterized by serious military tensions between the US and the Soviet Union.
But for those of us who work in the field, space exploration requires an understanding that no one person, space agency, or nation alone can authoritatively define our place in the universe.
Because no entity can claim any part of the cosmos for themselves, outer space is the perfect place to demonstrate that we can respect universal (literally) human rights for all of Earth’s people.
Given that thought, the level of international cooperation is remarkable if we take into account just how precarious the field of space law and policy truly is. Especially if we consider the nearly non-existent and fragile landscape of international space law.
But my optimism comes with a caveat. When it comes to an industry as young as space exploration, is important to recognize colonization, imperialism, and exploitation as not just a series of major historical events that humanity is still recovering from, but as things that can conceivably inspire the future laws that will determine our fate in space.
Colonization and exploitation define our major institutions, and are engrained in western society. They persists in science. And unless we make changes, they will persist in outer space as well.
In 1998, several nations signed a treaty into effect called the Intergovernmental Agreement on Space Station Cooperation. But since then, nothing substantial has been done to implement an international infrastructure to ensure accountability and planetary protection, safety, and ethics standards.
Space exploration—like most other major events in human history—will only become even more susceptible to the imperialism, colonialism, and general selfishness of our past should it continue to remain unchecked by any kind of system of accountability, collaboration, or transparency.
Because of this, we see events play out in space that would almost surely be ruled violations if they were carried out in the terrestrial realm.
A destroyed Chinese satellite emitted tons of space debris into the atmosphere, followed by India destroying its own satellite and sending more trash to float around in our low Earth orbit.
Agencies and public figures voiced disapproval of these reckless acts, but nothing was done on the international accountability level. This is especially shocking when we account for the fact that space debris the size of one single speck of paint has the power to bore a hole through the International Space Station.
When SpaceX launched the Starlink satellite array, it was met with outrage from the astronomy community when astronomers found their work impeded by increased light pollution. But with no written standards in place to ensure the private space sector cooperates with science (except acts of good faith), nothing was done to protect the work of researchers.
Then there was the case of the Beresheet, a private Israeli lunar lander, which crashed on the moon and spilled its cargo of a few thousand tardigrades in the process. The private mission was funded by the non-profit Arch Mission Foundation, an organization dedicated to creating “a backup of planet Earth.”
The Beresheet lander was able to jump through all sorts of planetary protection hoops, because there were no laws in place to stop it. There were also no transparency rules in place, and some suggested that the private company that owned the spacecraft was unaware of the animals on board the craft.
When the micro-animals, also known as water bears or moss piglets, were dumped into the atmosphere, there was no formal recourse to recover them, nor regulations in place to ensured the spacecraft was properly decontaminated.
Again, the international community reacted with concern, and contemplated the state of international space affairs. But without recourse, no one had a good response.
What we do on Earth, we take to space
In Mauna Kea, Hawai’i, tensions flared between international science and cultural rights. Representatives of a telescope management company were granted permission by local native authorities to use the island for cutting-edge stellar research on the condition that they would pay rent to them, employ a certain number of people from their community to work in telescope operations, and ensure that native students were granted learning and intern opportunities.
Unfortunately, the company parlayed this into a free pass to build an additional telescope, this time on a sacred site that was deemed off-limits by native law, and vital to the island’s ecosystem. When locals protested, they were met with resistance from police and military officials.
The message: Scientific advances are more important and protected than human rights, especially when those humans are part of a marginalized community.
The incident has sparked important discourse within the scientific community. But as of yet, there’s no sign of policy reform.
New space colonies
As space exploration advances, these ethical dilemmas are only going to become more complex and important.
And yet, as I first stated, space remains peaceful.
The United States still launches astronauts off Russian soil, utilizes Chinese and Iranian technologies, partners with Japan, Australia, Canada, many European countries, shares scientific endeavors with Latin America, and more.
Perhaps this is because no one actually wants space to fall to one ideology, one method of governance, and one leadership.
But can it last?
Outer space as we know it exists at a precarious point in time.
In today’s landscape of non-binding rules, technical advances, and outdated customs, silence has become an anxiety-inducing catalyst for even more of these precarious independent actions playing in outer space.
Take the dismissive response to contamination on the Moon and Mars. Utilizing the “barren” nature of the Moon, and dismissing its seemingly uninteresting environment (yes, it does have an environment) as a justification to further contaminate the atmosphere simply because we can is evidence that the harmful and painfully human ideals of colonialism are alive and well.
It is also important to remember that even though the Moon is deemed “low-risk” for contamination by NASA’s Planetary Protection office, it is in fact being contaminated, according to our very limited range of understanding and technology.
No matter how large a public pool is, there are rules against glass and liquids in the pool that can harm others that use it. Even amidst its barren-ness, ensuring that the Moon remains in a state that can be researched by all means ensuring it is not totally contaminated.
Simply put, we don’t know what we don’t know. But we can put procedures in place to ensure we don’t get caught off guard by any major curveballs, and so that what we do explore is fair game.
This is in no way to say that space exploration should come to a halt. I’ve come to appreciate the capabilities for speed and precision in innovation that the private sector brings to the table, and they are often my favorite people and projects to follow.
In addition, space exploration and innovation in space is nothing if not risky, and it’s the risk that excites so many and keeps the industry alive. It’s certainly what excited me as a kid. I knew there would be a high chance of dying if I ever became an astronaut and became the first to set foot on Mars (which, for the record, I still want to do). And I it made me all the more determined to follow my dreams.
But we need rules, regulations, and recourse for justice. And how can we achieve that if we have never succeeded in solving those issues on our own planet? The minute we launch into space, our human tendencies and ideologies are not magically left on Earth.
Continuing space exploration without first dismantling institutionally oppressive systems on Earth, and without the understanding that any endeavor in space must be properly accounted for and insured by updated safety and protection procedures, is morally wrong.
It disregards the rights of many communities to access space—communities that are not wealthy, or communities that do not share a similar economic system. If we don’t make changes, we will only continue to facilitate these harmful institutions that have thrived on earth for all of human history. To the richest, and the quickest, go the spoils.
We have the capabilities and resources to update safety protocols that will avoid preventable mistakes.
Recklessly and hastily moving forward into space without a framework in place for an international cooperative to prepare for these big unknowns is deeply irresponsible.
Refusing to have the necessary conversation of why certain people feel colonization at any cost is a right, or why talks of colonization are inherently not diverse, is unjust.
These things are no longer science fiction. We are well within our means to accomplish them.
For the first time in history perhaps, we have the opportunity to begin to undo our ugly past and ensure space is accessible for everyone. If we want to create a truly sustainable and responsible space environment, we must ensure that our efforts are transparent, ethical, and inclusive, and that we fully understand our historical tendencies as wealthy nations with an affinity for capitalism.
Refusing to make changes today will only guarantee that we continue to facilitate the ills of humanity in a field that fully has the potential to bring out the very best in us.