Recall your favorite science fiction classic: “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “Dune,” “The Time Machine,” or something before or after them. Woven across all of their storylines and characters’ journeys are the timeless human struggles for dignity, fundamental rights and self-realization. Their struggles are hard-won, by taking full advantage of innovations to navigate, explore and secure the stars.
Like dystopian science fiction stories, the COVID-19 pandemic tells innumerable tragic stories. The science and advanced technologies that developed vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutic care to save lives and bring control to the pandemic came from many sectors. For example, space technologies let health professionals virtually connect with patients, enabled the use of GPS satellite data and artificial intelligence to monitor social distancing measures, and provided high-speed internet and cloud storage for remote learning.
These technologies did not magically appear. The space economy must continue to foresee the nation’s and the world community’s challenges to also utilize space technologies that help life on Earth. Consider the role that space plays in climate research, such as insurance and weather forecasting by calculating sea level changes and farming crop development. Between 2040 and 2060, as humanity continues to rely on space-derived capabilities from deeper in the solar system, how will we build the space economy, especially its market mechanisms and infrastructure to solve — rather than multiply — 21st-century problems?
We are the fiduciaries of our children’s futures in the space economy. We and our allies must be good stewards of it. We must protect their rights to it. United Nations space treaties ensure each signatory nation’s right to pursue peaceful civil, scientific, environmental, humanitarian and other activities in space, with mutual respect and cooperation. Inherent in such sovereign autonomy is the duty to protect and respect other nations’ rights and investments. Today, many more state and private-sector actors can afford to place and operate assets in space, because of the exponential advances in electronics, materials science and other emerging technologies.
As the technology needed to operate on the moon and other space locations proliferates, what standards should we establish? How should we contain debris flying at hypersonic speeds and polluting space when we have not effectively addressed pollution on Earth? How can we protect space equipment from threats, obsolescence and malfunction? How can we secure and respect space property rights? How should we finance and insure the space economy?
These questions require sustained leadership and a commitment to the space economy and its key infrastructure so that the “rules of the road” are clear, and space actors can appropriately invest in and develop the full spectrum of needed space infrastructure. The U.S. economy evolved and strengthened by becoming a dynamic national and global trading system based on equitable norms, behaviors, rules and laws. The U.S. portion of the global space economy will follow a similar path.
Space is the ultimate frontier for humanity’s future economic systems. Science fiction contrasts Earth’s leading economic systems: one, a hybrid free market and the other, a centrally planned system. In the former, the government is a large customer, investor and predictable regulator, but it is not the primary decision-maker in what is developed, where it is used or who profits from it in space. In the latter, the government approves the majority of investments, customers, partners, users, intellectual property and resources developed for space.
Every spacefaring nation applies its terrestrial economic and political frameworks to assure that its space-related investment priorities and sources of capital and control serve civil, scientific, commercial and national security purposes. Every nation operating in space seeks the economic and geopolitical benefits of participating in space commerce. No nation wants space debris threatening its space assets that support its citizens’ way of life. Nations, however, can and do diverge on claiming exclusive property rights to mine resources, develop the moon, or acquire intellectual property through academic or commercial subterfuge, industrial theft or other means.
The United States, as the leading market-based economy, seeks to play an enduring and stabilizing role in the space economy. To do so, our nation must commit itself now to a 2060 Space Vision that takes full advantage of the financial, legal, policy and other mechanisms that we rely on every day to advance our commercial, scientific and research interests.
Our recent report, U.S. Space Policies for the New Space Age: Competing on the Final Economic Frontier, highlights findings and strategies that, if analyzed and acted upon now, would put the United States in a competitive position for the future space economy. This North Star vision for policymakers, industry, investors and space pioneers relies on and extends partnerships with private industry and government agencies in nations that seek to operate via rules-based market certainty and transparency.
We have no time to waste in creating and implementing America’s 2060 Space Vision. Other nations aim to supplant America as the strategic leader and partner of choice in space. They tend to disrespect fundamental rights, the environment and the freedom of nations to decide their destinies.
Space is existential terrain. Success in space grows respect and trust on Earth. The United States must lead in space if it wants to set agendas for democratic norms and values, ethical business practices, human rights, environmental and social impacts, and financial transparency. Our example and leadership must be so profound that other nations will eagerly join in shared success.
Bruce Cahan, J.D., is a lecturer at Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering, and the CEO and co-founder of Urban Logic Inc. Follow him on LinkedIn.
Dr. Mir Sadat has more than 25 years of experience in private industry, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, where he most recently was policy director leading interagency coordination on defense and space policy issues. The views expressed here are his alone. Follow him on Twitter @Dr_Sadat_USN.