Jordan: Over the past few years, it seems like every couple of months brings us a new rocket launch, and not from NASA. These launches have become so frequent that you’d be forgiven if you tuned most of them out, unless you’re really into rocket launches. But this year there was one launch in particular that the whole world, space nuts and otherwise, should have noticed.
Clip: Two, one, zero. Ignition. Lift off. That’s the Falcon 9 and crew… God speed.
Jordan: When Space X’s Falcon Heavy took off from a NASA launchpad, it marked a new era of space flight. One in which private businesses have as much of a stake in the success of manned missions as government space agencies. My question is, have we stopped along the way to think about the ramifications of that? What rules do companies like Space X have to follow once they slipped the surly bonds of Earth? And if they break those rules who make sure that they pay for it? And as this technology evolves at a rapid pace and partnerships become more common and there is more money at stake, what or who stops outer space from becoming the new Wild West? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Michael O’Shea is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. He is a co-founder of Pop Scope Public Astronomy, and he is a freelance journalist, which is where we found him on this subject in the Walrus. Hi Michael.
Michael: Hey Jordan. Good to be here.
Jordan: Well, thank you for joining us. And I guess my first question, to give people who don’t pay attention to all the rocket launches a little bit of context is, can you just tell me about the Space X Falcon Heavy launch?
Michael: Absolutely. So, yeah, what was so historic and exciting about that launch on May 30th, besides it happening at pretty dark time for humanity, was that it was the first time in nearly a decade that a US, or a spacecraft from US soil carrying US astronauts into outer space was launched from US soil. So since the retirement of the space shuttle program, the US had actually been relying on the Russians to ferry their astronauts to space, to the tune of millions of dollars for each launch. US astronauts would go to the Russian agency’s launch site, and actually you go to space on a cell using rocket. So a case of great cooperation, but very expensive for NASA. And that really limited NASA’s operations when they couldn’t launch from US soil. But it was also historic for another reason, which was that it was the first time a private space company had ferried people of any kind, not only NASA astronauts, into outer space. So Space X in partnership, under contract with NASA launched two NASA astronauts to the international space station.
Jordan: How did that arrangement come about?
Michael: Yeah. So Space X is an interesting company. Probably interesting cause it’s the brainchild of Elon Musk love him or hate him, when he seems to put his mind to something, he does it quite quite quickly, and, depending on who you talk to, quite well. So I think about 20 years ago, he had this vision of, I believe travelling to Mars and maybe settling Mars. So he shopped around for rockets and I believe he approached the Russians initially. And when that didn’t work out, he thought, why don’t I try and make my own rockets? And very quickly for, any kind of organization, public or private, Elon Musk in his company was able to build out their own private space program pretty quickly. You know, they had some failures, but also a lot of successes. And so by a certain point, the SpaceX, you know, was reliable enough that they were able to get a contract with the international space station to ferry cargo to the international space station. So that was the beginning of some formal partnerships with the government. Space X was also making money from launching satellites from other companies and countries. And so they had this conversation, this evolving partnership, and after testing their launch system, many, many, many times in ferrying cargo, the space station, Space X, and NASA felt that their system was safe enough to swap out the cargo, and put in some humans and fly them into the space station.
Jordan: So I know when you hear people like Elon Musk talk about space, it’s often, you know, in the pursuit of the best of humanity and exploration and all that kind of stuff. But this is a private company. Their end goal is to make a profit, right? This is a for-profit business, and they’re also not the only ones in this business.
Michael: You’re absolutely right. They are a private company. They’re one of many jockeying for a piece of the pie that is the space economy. I think to a lot of people, including myself, there’s a fear that we’re going to turn space, or space has already become, a kind of Wild West. And Wild West not in just the sense that there’s a lot of rogue actors, but we’re actually going to recreate the damage and all the awful things that happened in the Wild West in North America during the time of European settlement. So the question is, how do we not recreate those mistakes? How do we not export our worst, humanity’s worst impulses into space? But create a better, more hopeful, more mutually respectful vision of space that has less warfare, less conflict, less oppression, less nationalism, less colonization, and so on.
Jordan: That sounds amazing, and it’s incredibly idealistic. But I guess my questions, and what I found so fascinating about your piece, was just the questions that I’d never thought to ask myself before. So Space X is going up there, other companies are going up there and their goal is to make money. And once they get up there, what rules do they have to follow?
Michael: Right. And so, you know, when I began working on this article, I didn’t know the extent to which there was a legal framework in outer space. I knew that, you know, there’s probably some agreements at the UN. But I didn’t know that there was a whole body of space law. There are folks who specialize in space law, who are space lawyers. There’s an Institute for space law at McGill University, at universities in the States. There’s all kinds of smart people at the UN talking about this. And so, the simple answer is yes, there are laws in outer space, and those laws start at some distance above the Earth. One accepted boundary for that is a hundred kilometres above the Earth’s surface. So if you imagine Canada from sea-level to a hundred kilometres, the airspace there is subject to Canadian law. So any helicopter, whatever kind of aircraft flying there is subject to Canadian law. But above a hundred kilometres, space law would kick in. Space law is shaped by all number of factors and agreements, but the biggest one is probably the outer space treaty, much longer name. It’s called the outer space treaty for short. And that actually dates back to 1967. And you want to see idealism in action, I encourage you to look at the articles of that space treaty.
Jordan: What kinds of stuff is in there?
Michael: Yes, there’s an optimism about the future of space. There’s a hope for collaboration, for using space for the benefit of all humankind. And that’s surprising, I think about the condition because of the Cold War. There was a fear that outer space would just become another zone of conflict between the two superpowers during the Cold War. The threat of mass destruction. So in a case of, you know, a surprising cooperation, Soviet Union, the US, and other powers came together and created the framework to cooperate in space, and create things like the UN office on outer space affairs, the UN committee on the peaceful uses of outer space. So there’s great optimism in that name. So within nine years of coming together, by 1967, they were able to agree on this treaty. And since then 110 countries have signed onto it.
Jordan: Give me an example of some of the actual rules in this treaty that govern the behaviour of crafts in outer space, or countries or companies for that matter.
Michael: So a big one is that while the treaty doesn’t talk specifically about private space actors and, you know, some critics would say that’s a weakness of it, but the drafters couldn’t have imagined the explosion in private space activity when it was drafted. So there is room there for improvement. But indirectly, it does talk about private space activity. And it says that all countries are responsible for launches of any kind from their soil, private or public. Another example of sort of this, I would say hopefulness, or attempt at mutual cooperation, is article two, which says outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty by means of use or occupation, or by other means.
Jordan: So who would enforce those rules then, if Elon Musk or the United States or any other country or company broke it?
Michael: Yeah. So I think like anything at the UN, there isn’t a direct enforcement mechanism. A lot of it is mutual shaming or finger wagging. You can also go into arbitration, right? If say some country’s company did something that violated the law, or the spirit or letter of this treaty, you could go into arbitration. And I should say that these international agreements, there are ones that followed on the heels of the outer space treaty. They do work. There was a case where a Russian spacecraft broke off over North Western Canada and deposited a whole stream of radiation, and through this framework, those responsible in Russia paid Canada for the cleanup and the damages.
Jordan: You mentioned that the outer space treaty was created in 1967, and there have been updates and other agreements since then. How well have they kept pace with the rate of technological advancement? Because there are some things that we’re doing in space now that I don’t think we would have imagined even, you know, a decade or two ago, right?
Michael: Yeah. Well, I think a good system of legal, or a good legal framework, allows for changes, allows for technological changes to happen and still have a guiding framework. Many countries have constitutions that are decades or centuries old, and they’re able to be interpreted in light of technological changes. The two big areas I would say is, that might want to be tackled in a future agreement, a formal agreement would be space junk or space debris, as there are tons of disused parts, debris from booster rockets, just tons of stuff in outer space surrounding Earth, thousands of pieces. NASA keeps a database of these, all kinds of just junk up there that’s orbiting Earth at very high speeds. And any one of these pieces can be fatal to, you know, a spacecraft or to an astronaut, given the speed at which they’re traveling. The other area is privatization. What I learned in doing this article, though, is even though there hasn’t been, you know, maybe a formal treaty passed or a binding resolution, there are, you know, smart, committed people discussing this, in for example, the UN committee on the peaceful uses of outer space.
Jordan: So what happens then, and if the system works, then that’s perfect, but you kind of mentioned at the beginning of this discussion that you were worried about space becoming the Wild West. And when I think about that metaphor, it really suggests that all it takes is a few actors kind of not totally playing by the rules and no consequences being enforced. And while you’ve, you know, described how the UN might, you know, shame or negotiate with other countries to resolve disputes, what happens if Musk– and I’m not saying it to pick on him, but just because he’s the best known– Musk or another company just says no? Like, we’re going to do this, and you know, how are you going to stop us? How do they stop them?
Michael: Yeah. So a lot of this will depend on the regulatory framework within each country. Every country following the lead of the US in 2015 and 2018 when it passed legislation to make private space activity easier. Other countries around the world have also passed laws to make it easier to streamline approval of private space activity. Luxembourg followed suit, and the pace has only picked up. I think the United Arab Emirates was one of the most recent countries to announce their support for private space activity. And countries are interested in incentivizing this kind of activity. There’s a lot of money to be made, a lot of wealth for the country to be had. So a lot of this is going to, I think, kind of come down to individual countries. I’m most familiar with the US case because so much seems to be happening here. So when Musk launches a rocket or a satellite, he has to get approval from the US government. And so if we are seeking closer oversight of something that Space X does, we will need to, I think, pressure national governments to do more. Especially the US, because it’s the most active space ferrying nation, because its actions carry a lot of weight inside or outside a UN framework, if we’re, I think upset with something Space X is doing, I think US federal government might be where we need to exert some pressure. Folks I think are familiar, might be familiar with these Starlink satellite system?
Jordan: Yeah, tell me a bit about that.
Michael: Yeah, so that was actually one of my entry points into my article. I started thinking about who controls space, who’s responsible for it. So Starlink is a plan system of thousands of small satellites in outer space. And by small, I think we’re talking about the size of a dinner table. And this is part of the trend towards smaller satellites that are easier to launch, easier to take down, easier to replace, and cheaper. And the idea is you could build more of them and create sort of a web or a constellation of satellites in outer space. So Space X, and he’s not alone, there are other companies doing this and planning this plan to create a network of not just hundreds, but thousands of dinner table sized satellites in outer space, with the goal of providing high speed internet to residents of earth. The problem is, like any satellite, they’re reflective and they’re reflecting sunlight back to Earth. So in some evenings or some mornings you might wake up or stay up and see what looks like a planet or a bright aircraft in the sky. Which you know, is not just, you know, a surprise or an inconvenience, but it can actually interfere with astronomical observations. And they already have, actually. So you can imagine that as the number of these small satellites in outer space increase, not just in the hundreds, but into the thousands, there’s a concern that it will not just interfere with astronomical observations, but also in a more metaphysical sense, take away the night sky as a resource, as a shared resource for people to enjoy. Starlink though, you know, been approved by the US government, you know, perfectly legal under US law, which has guided by the outer space treaty. So, I think if we want closer oversight of things like Starlink, we might want to put pressure on certain governments.
Jordan: Well, this leads me to kind of the last couple of questions I have, which is just look, I’m talking to you from Canada. You’re talking to me from the United States. There’s a big election coming up in a couple of months. Meanwhile, there is still Brexit to happen and Russia seems to be bickering with almost everybody. How likely is it that countries will agree to enforce these rules on their own corporations, which are presumably driving their economies?
Michael: I think there’s also a window of hope in pressuring companies or working with companies to resolve these problems without resorting to the courts. We’ll see, you know, in what good faith these companies are acting, but, you know, Space X did agree to work with astronomers to attempt to make their satellites less disruptive to astronomical observations. I think Space X could do more, but that could suggest one avenue towards indirectly regulating companies through sort of private partnerships or public pressure.
Jordan: I get all of that. And I think that it can work in a lot of situations. I guess, what really intrigues me about the topic is what if a Musk says, no, we’re not going to work with you. And then the UN has to go to the United States, which is benefiting economically from Space X, and get these guys to shut these satellites down or make them dimmer. And the US government says, well, no.
Michael: So my hope right now is that, you know, that through these forums at the UN those kinds of discussions could be addressed there, and work it out on that level before we would sort of have a UN versus US situation. And I think given the power of the US, you know, as sort of the biggest person in the room, has this ability to shape norms in outer space for better or for worse. In response to your earlier question though, about, can we be hopeful that space, if things on earth seem pretty messed up right now. On one hand, you might see all these Starlink satellites being launched and think, you know, and hearing plans to mine asteroids, and hear this language of colonization and dominance, and you might get very depressed about the future of space, and rightfully so. On the other hand, I think space in some ways has been resilient to the kind of political squabbling that we see on Earth, maybe just for the time being. And I say that because in spite of all kinds of geopolitical tensions, countries do cooperate in space. You know, the Russians and the US have cooperated on the building of the international space station, as Putin squared off against Obama, US astronauts were still blessing off the space station on Russian spacecraft. Then we’re all working, with the exception of some countries like China, on the international space station every day. So my hope is that we can continue with the best of our impulses in outer space and avoid the worst of our human impulses that we have, unfortunately, too many examples of here on Earth.
Jordan: Well, I hope the final frontier is different. Thank you so much for this today, Michael.
Michael: Hey, thank you. It’s great to be here.
Jordan: Michael O’Shea, co founder of Popscope Public Astronomy and author in the Walrus. That was The Big Story for more, you know by now, thebigstorypodcast.ca is your go to. You can also find us on any and all podcast platforms. You can email us, email@example.com. And you can find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page