Space: Think Frontier, Not Commons

Posted: November 16, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Note: this article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff.

Space: Think Frontier, Not Commons

By Mark Stout

Nations would be well served to start thinking of the space domain as more of a frontier and less as a commons.  The distinction is important: a frontier is a place that continues beyond the furthest extents of an inhabited region, while a commons is a place owned or jointly used by the members of a community.  While aspects of both the frontier and commons analogies can be argued, the frontier viewpoint is a more useful reference.  This is because considering space as a frontier is more likely to result in space policies which will allow the full development of a beneficial and robust space economy while also preserving vital national interests as they regard space.

Obfuscating the frontier – commons distinction further is the much-used phrase global commons, which has been variously applied to international waters (plus the associated seabed and subsoil); space; Antarctica; cyberspace; and even the world’s climate system.   The phrase global commons has been slung with a vigor and frequency that suggests there is a well understood and accepted definition, but it isn’t necessarily so.  Without a more precise and accepted definition, the phrase global commons is largely stripped of its usefulness and the saying confuses, rather than clarifies, the issue.  While imprecision may be good for lawyers, it’s bad for business.

As a point of departure, I’ll offer my own definition for what I think should constitute a true global commons.  This global commons definition includes five major aspects and would include those places that are 1) abundant, 2) beyond national jurisdictions, 3) can be used to create value for society and earnings for investors, 4) can in no way be considered private property, and 5) human activity there is often assisted or even largely overseen by non-governmental organizations (although armed Navies are often used to secure rights and interests in the global commons of international waters).  By this definition, cyberspace would not be considered as a global commons because the domain is totally dependent on equipment (internet service providers, switches, routers, computers, etc.) with distinct ownership.

While space meets the above definition with certain caveats, there are contentious issues regarding item 3 (space can be used to create value for society and earnings for investors), item 4 (space cannot be private property), and item 5 (oversight of space).  Regarding item 5, there are currently NGOs who would gladly trade national freedom of action in space for restrictions on whatever they choose to call space-based “weapons.” In fact, there is no agreed-upon definition of what a space weapon is, nor is there even an agreed upon definition of outer space.

Pertaining to items 3 and 4, although space-based telecommunications and other space services are valuable to society and are capable of providing returns to investors, these pale in comparison to the potential for space-based solar power or Helium-3 mined from the Moon’s soil.  However, the promise of these two important energy sources is unlikely to ever be developed unless we reframe our thinking and start looking at space as a frontier to be developed and less as a sanctuary to be preserved.

In no small part, restrictions on the development of a more robust space economy are first due to the lack of space-related technological breakthroughs and secondly, to the Outer Space Treaty (OST).  The OST, to which the U.S. has been a party since 1967, has one particularly contentious sentence that says “…the exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development.”  That one sentence implies that those who invest their time and monies in new space-delivered services (like energy or mining) should have their returns redistributed in a manner which is inconsistent with the principles of economic liberty and free enterprise and is also inconsistent with the current space “fee-for-service” model provided by DirecTV and others.

While some argue the Outer Space Treaty has already allowed for the creation of a space economy — again, consider DirecTV — the uncertainty associated with the language of the OST runs contrary to new and non-traditional investment in space-delivered goods and services.  While the Moon – or any part of space – doesn’t need to become private property, those who may want to mine it will need better assurances that the investments they have made will be protected. Licensing, user’s unions, or the likes may be the best way to develop the assurances that allow space to be mined for resource extraction or developed for solar power production, that is, in creating a more beneficial space economy.

The “global commons” are most often described in terms of where they are, such as international waters, space, or Antarctica.  But are these examples accurate and well defined and more importantly, what are we really trying to accomplish with such language and definitions? A more useful description of the global commons would be to also address the what of the situation, that is, what purpose does a commons serve?

To borrow from David Bollier, one of the profound questions of the contemporary worldwide economy is how will the global commons be controlled? A commons, a true commons, is one of the rarest of all things because a commons has inherent value and things of value are sought.  As such, while the value of space will in time become largely economic, space also has important national security implications and agendas that impair our freedom of action in space should be politely dismissed.

Based on the current state of spacefaring today, anything farther from the earth than the geosynchronous belt should be viewed as a frontier and not as a commons.  As the American frontier needed the protection of Federal troops during the great westward expansion, so too might human and robotic expansion into space require such protections.  For space to best serve mankind it needs to address the concepts of value creation and return on investment which cannot ensure the full exploration and use of space, but without it, will guarantee space is not used more beneficially.  It is time to start thinking of space as a post-global frontier, a reasonably accurate description which supports the protection of space and the development of user’s rights which will lead to investments there that will improve all of our lives on earth.  That is how space should be used for the benefit of all peoples, in line with the OST.

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at the Air Force Space and Cyber Strategy Center and contributes to its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.

 

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