25 Feb 2017

Have we learned nothing? The space race continues…

Joanna writes*

The launch of the Soviet Satellite Sputnik in 1957 started a race to space between the United States of America and the former USSR that ended with the first joint mission, the Apollo-Soyez project. While the Apollo-Soyez project has remained the only space collaboration for another twenty years, it has resulted in an unprecedented international collaboration known as the International Space Station (ISS). With the increase in aircrafts and satellites in the orbit came a challenge that no one had expected: debris.

Space debris, or orbital debris, are artificial (man-made) objects in the earth’s orbit which usually have no more function. The debris consists of non-functional spacecrafts, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris. However, the non-traceable debris is the most dangerous to spacecrafts and satellites. Current estimates trace approximately 500,000 pieces of debris in the orbit of the earth. The speed of the debris, which can be up to 17,500 mph, makes it possible for very small pieces to cause serious damage.

Space, by definition, is a common pool good because it is non-excludable and rival. It is rival because too much consumption leads to negative externalities such as congestion and orbital debris. It is a valuable resource to many countries as it provides services for global communication, remote sensing, and national and international security as well as opportunities for research. The cleaning of the earth’s orbit is effectively a collective action problem. Ostrom’s tactics on how to solve collective action problems, however, primarily work on a local scale rather than a global one, let alone one that exceeds the boundaries of our globe. Joan Johnson-Freese, and Brian Weeden articulate that space law was primarily written during the cold war, making it outdated and ineffective. They examine the extent to which Ostrom’s model can be applied to space and state that it can be used primarily to identify gaps in the current governance. The next step is taken by Natalie Pusey who presses the need for an international treaty “that would make spacecraft operators liable for debris-caused damage to property, and that would require reasonable debris-mitigation measures to be taken for every mission.” At the moment, the European Space Agency (ESA) has a clean space program that promotes an eco-friendly approach to space activities. This includes “adopting greener industrial materials, processes and technologies.” In short: In short: the conservation of the orbital environment to allow continuous use.

Fact is, however, that with the growing interest in space as a key global resource, there are a growing number of countries interested in taking advantage of this resource. This leads to an emerging ‘space race’ with countries wanting to utilize this resource in any way possible. The next step, believe it or not, is space (eco)tourism.
“Up there, hovering above Earth with my orbital perspective, I came to believe that the answer to why our world still faces so many critical problems - in spite of the ample technology and resources we have at our disposal - lies primarily in our inability to effectively collaborate on a global scale.” Ron Garan, former NASA Astronaut
Bottom Line: The space race allegedly stopped in 1975 but in reality, it has just opened up new ways of exploring space as a resource to be utilized by as many countries that have the means to access it.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data, etc.


  1. I find this topic super intrigueing Joanna, great post! What becomes interesting is the fact that the 1972 Convention only includes liability for damage caused to people or property on the ground (even without negligence), and as you mentioned, but not if damage was to occur to people or property in space. This is obviously troublesome, but could you also not argue that if damage was done to a satellite by space debris that meant it had an outage it could indirectly harm people on the ground. For example, in 1998 a PanAmSat satellite had an outage which caused pagers all over the world to stop working. If these pagers were being used especially within the medical field many lives may have been put at great risk.

    1. Thanks, Lisa, that's a great perspective. I will research it for my essay:-)


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