The Absolute Imperative of the Celestial Commons
As both governments and private corporations around the world look to space with a sense of ambition, it is vital that the public consider the implications of infinite wealth and power on an infinite frontier.
A Celestial Object is anything above the Earth’s atmosphere. A Commons refers to any resource shared by and accessible to all members of a society.
A Celestial Commons is the idea that, like the air we breathe, the water we drink, the oceans we cross and the environment we all enjoy, space and all it contains is our shared inheritance and we should all benefit from its access and use.
Space has always captured the imagination. And for most of us, that is exactly where it has stayed. A place for physicists, air force pilots, billionaires and storytellers, so far above the real world it doesn’t bear serious contemplation as a regular part of everyday life. Especially not with so much else going on.
But whether we acknowledge it or not, that is all going to change in the near future. Space is opening up, and with it, a limitless expanse of possibilities. Many of them will, or at least can, change our lives and our future overwhelmingly for the better. But there are risks as much as opportunities that need to be considered. And time is running short.
The problem essentially boils down to this — Limitless space. Limitless resources. Limitless Power — who gets it and what to do with it.
A SHARED CHALLENGE
An often overlooked point of overlap in contemporary political and economic debate is a concern regarding the unhealthy concentration of power and resources. ‘People Power’ is a refrain shared by groups both left and right of centre. Some worry about the state. Others worry about corporations and private individuals. But the underlying concern is the same and it is entirely justified. Too much money or power in one place means trouble. It’s also not particularly efficient.
While space might feel like a far flung fantasy for most of us, those states, companies and individuals that already wield enormous power, capital and the means to access the infinite currently stand to inherit the future.
Indeed, the very fact that space seems so distant from and irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people only serves to widen the scope for oligarchic abuse, creating a longer runway for established powers to get off the ground and secure their interests, before the public interest catches up.
This is an epoch-defining problem. What happens in the next few years and decades will create power structures that define centuries and millennia, affecting billions of people, across numerous worlds.
The human race is going to space.
But ‘how’ we go will irrevocably alter everything.
FAILURE TO LAUNCH
A future in space can often seem like a bit of a joke. After all, we’ve been this way before and rather than taking off, everything just sort of fizzled out.
In the decades after the Apollo program, public enthusiasm for space waned. Expectations were high, yet development was hampered by strained interest, fickle budgets and shifting political priorities. Our journey to space progressed at snail’s pace. The world moved on and shifted focus. The case for space was undermined and momentum was lost.
It wasn’t so much any specific failure that brought about this unfortunate change, but rather success. At least at first. The reality is that a point had been proven and an objective had been met. Public support was no longer required. As soon as American astronauts set foot on the moon, the apparent cost-benefit began to tilt back in the other direction. So began decades worth of budget cuts, accelerated by accidents, poor choices and various risk analyses, but not necessarily precipitated by them.
Gradually, an alignment of interests against public investment in space emerged and a slow winding down of public space programmes ensued.
A narrative took hold. One which said space was far too expensive and fantastical to consider seriously. It painted space as a childish dream and presented a false choice scenario that played investment off against earthbound concerns. Space against education. Space against healthcare. The dreamy never-land of science fiction against the practical concerns of everyday life. Never mind the military budget.
This narrative was and continues to be an assault on progress, conveniently promulgated by vested interests and oft repeated by well meaning folks who rightly just want to see the world get better, with money well spent addressing humanitarian concerns.
We’ve pitched good against good to fight over scraps, while average and terrible does as it pleases.
Yet, the money and enthusiasm didn’t entirely disappear. It just changed course. Besides the scientific (and science fiction) community and a series of remarkable post-cold-war projects like the Hubble telescope and International Space Station, legislators, the defence industry and those with private contracts never took their eye off the sky.
Space is, after all, really really big.
Somehow, eventually, it was going to be a big deal.
Fast forward to today — advancing technology, global crises and renewed attention has met with a surge of interest from private entities who see unlimited economic gain, as well as nation states who see space as a theatre of strategic power and recognise the critical importance of space to economic and national security.
In the last twenty years, the number of nations with active space agencies has doubled. Not only has it become increasingly clear that space-based tech is vital to maintaining a healthy digital communications sector and addressing global challenges such as climate change, but the reality that it will play a defining role in the geopolitical and security struggles of the coming decades is unavoidable and there’s no longer any room to fall behind.
The race is back on.
Yet at the same time, those agencies are increasingly deferring to or merely facilitating private interests in order to get things done. In many cases, particularly in smaller countries, they operate as little more than business relations or trade departments rather than conducting independent activities in the public interest. The potential of the space sector is certainly recognised, yet a majority of the focus is on how to attract the most business and make it easier, meaning the race is less about achieving developmental milestones or public good per se and more about competing to see who can create the most favourable market.
This approach is not without its appeal. In New Zealand for example, a less than 10 million dollar budget helped generate an estimated 1.5 billion in revenue for the economy. A hefty return — and mostly from small businesses.
Nor is it particularly new. NASA has always worked with external contractors to build its rockets. It’s pretty much standard practice.
However this fresh surge of development is not only leaning into private sector partnerships more than ever before, but has virtually ceded centre stage, allowing them to net a majority of publicity and credit for success. Much like the self-satisfied and supposedly self-made successes of the pharmaceutical industry or silicon valley and the digital economy, it is an environment that incentivises side-lining or even disparaging the very foundation on which that success was built — public funding and infrastructure.
It also grants enormous power to early movers and capital networks over the future development of the sector. Perhaps far more so than the self-serving and anti-competitive ecosystem accreted together by the likes of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, the space economy gears itself towards monopoly by way of astronomical buy-in — with small space companies operating at the behest of those with access to capital, connections and infrastructure (be they state or corporate) and those institutions acquiring said capital, connections and infrastructure by playing ball with existing interests (such as defence). The result is that virtually the entire emerging space sector is inextricably linked to these interests.
It might be easy to sit back and assess that all of this is ‘natural’ and ultimately the only way to get things done. But that attitude conveniently sidesteps an important question. Perhaps one of the most important questions of our age.
It’s not “How are we going to space?” It’s “How ‘should’ we go to space?”.
It’s something we need to work out and then act upon.
THE INFINITE FRONTIER
Because here’s the thing — once it really takes off, it’ll be flying on forever, and changing course (or anything else) will be inordinately difficult. We are already dealing with the lasting consequences of our past failures and inactions. We can’t ignore our obligations again. Not when the consequences are so far-reaching.
Yet that is the current trajectory.
The fact is when policy comes as an afterthought, established interests and monopolies have a tendency to participate or even be deferred to in its formation. They wind up writing their own rulebook. We’ve seen this play out in the financial sector, the energy sector and virtually everything that touches the Earth’s environment.
We know that early development of the space sector established both state and corporate dominance in key areas. An infatuation with the modern progress of private space companies, at the expense of public sector funding and effective policy, also serves those same monopolistic tendencies.
For as long as public space agencies in democratic nations conduct operations in the public interest and maintain public infrastructure there is a chance of equity and flow-on impact, but we are leaning away from that, towards a bisection of the sector into state-security and corporate-everything-else, with security likely to be co-opted in due course as well.
In this environment, public interest becomes an afterthought, or merely a marketing strategy. While engagement with the space sector increasingly comes by way of commercial interest. Visit a university campus today to talk about space and it’s all marketed as commercial opportunity.
The romantic ideal of a human future in space is being converted wholesale into just another sector of the goods and services economy. While a great many would suggest that it’s just plain unrealistic to expect anything different, it’s also incredibly important to do so.
Space is an opportunity to do things differently. Given the fact that new developments take place in a metaphorical vacuum, it is perhaps the greatest chance we’ve ever had. And given the fact that it’s an infinite frontier, where policy will struggle to catch up with expansion, it might also be the last.
So one of the things we absolutely have to do differently is establish a new working relationship between the multiplicity of parties that participate in building new worlds. Governments, private enterprises, communities and ordinary individuals — all have value and something to contribute.
Yet at the moment, very few are actually involved. Limited primarily to states and the private sector. A trend which is currently being exacerbated, rather than addressed by the notion alluded to earlier — the self fulfilling prophecy that those are the only interests that ‘can’ benefit from space.
For example, while there is no question that significant innovations have been made in the private sector, or even that a strong private sector is a tremendously important part of our future in space, not all credit that is given is necessarily due.
Observers laud the innovation and pace of private companies that have taken almost two decades, on the back of public contracts and infrastructure, to get to orbit and dock with a space station, built by public agencies that took ten years to get to the moon, half a century ago.
The concrete benefits of a publicly funded, publicly driven space sector are being hurriedly obfuscated — soon to be forgotten.
Though to be fair, the public sector itself is partly to blame. Ostensibly democratic governments have acted on perverted self-interest with respect to space, as much as they do anywhere else. The fresh developments that are taking place today, do so within a relative vacuum of policy and consideration that, while benefiting corporate interests, exists in large part due to other considerations.
The Outer Space Treaty, formed in 1967 (and with 111 members as of 2022), is a minimalist document, dealing almost expressly with weapons of mass destruction in space and state power over celestial bodies. However it makes no stipulations as to the legality of other weapons and says nothing about the now very real possibility of private ownership.
Out of short-sighted self-interest, states both large and small are failing in their obligation to account for a future where their own power, not to mention everyone else’s, will almost certainly be eclipsed.
With public attention understandably directed — when it isn’t being consumed — to matters of more tangible and immediate concern, such as economic uncertainty, health crises and the looming threat of ecological disaster, the future of space is being secured by the same category of interests responsible for much of the chaos on Earth.
Meanwhile, concerns about ‘how’ we are presently going to space get dismissed. It’s relatively easy to understand and even empathise with. Things were stagnant for so long and now they’re moving. The starry-eyed science fiction aficionados amongst us (myself included) find themselves taking whatever they can get.
A culture of ‘whatever delivers’ is emerging and it is inadvertently risking much more than it perhaps realises.
Very often the ill-considered expectation that our expansion into space will behave like any normal progression of any normal industry is used to fob off any concerns. Yet the implications of the current trajectory of long-term development, not to mention the patently obvious issues with those so-called ‘normal’ industries is patently and irresponsibly ignored.
Though again, the private sector is not the only concern. Nation states are not exactly good-faith actors and have made little effort towards securing the future of space, for their own reasons. In the case of smaller economies, fresh to the sector, there is an understandable interest in just getting started and a lack of capacity to influence the bigger players, who, besides their own economic interests, are liable to see space in terms of security and refrain from tying their own hands. After all, any money saved on NASA is money that can go towards ‘Space Force’.
The fact that vested economic and security interests are the driving force behind policy does not totally deprive the sector of public benefit. States do fund a tremendous amount of primary ‘hard science’ research. Communications infrastructure does benefit the public in innumerable obvious ways. And the technology developed for these and other purposes can pay enormous dividends in everything from education to the fight against climate change. Indeed the same can be said of the private sector.
Yet these benefits are often secondary consolation prizes. They come as an indirect result of pursuing less egalitarian objectives.
It’s a brand of trickle down thinking that already does damage at its present terrestrial scale. So when space truly ‘takes off’, there is the very real risk that the interests of the bulk of humanity and the opportunity to really change the world for the better will be left behind.
And while it’s all very well to say that if we make a rule, a company or state will be compelled to follow it, the historical precedent suggests otherwise. Even within established spheres of control, there is persistent boundary pushing, and here we are talking about the development of literally limitless space beyond existing national borders and jurisdictions.
It’s the wild west. Forever.
There is the possibility that terrestrial nations will attempt to extend their reach to enforce their influence, or the influence of their private sector benefactors. A path that inexorably leads to conflict of one kind or another.
There is also the possibility that private interests will eventually become self-sufficient political bodies in their own right, operating under their own jurisdictions and in their own interest. Yet as corporations they would be fundamentally authoritarian in nature and any emergence of any form of legitimate extra-terrestrial democracy would, at that late stage, necessitate competing with a corporate hegemony. Almost like a union movement in space. Something demonstrably difficult here on Earth in the best of cases.
In either case, our current lack of forethought invites future conflict and the exponentially expanding potential for human abuse.
We are increasingly looking toward a future where space is a theatre of conflict and competition, rather than cooperation, driven not by public interest, but by the interests of those who either own it, or at the very least own the access to it.
And right now, we are doing precious little to insure against that future.
If there were effective policy and comprehensive international agreements in place, then that would provide at least some assurance that the relative power dynamics between the public, political and private bodies would remain intact. However, even in dealing with present terrestrial issues, this is a dynamic that is already far from adequate, and the chance of it becoming much more so is amplified by the sheer scale involved.
We need better policy and we need it now.
Things are moving so quickly. They will continue to do so. And we are falling behind. But here’s the thing. If we do act now, the possibility to affect positive change is truly staggering.
Space is an infinite frontier with infinite opportunity.
It must be shared.
Control over primary resources, as well as the logistics required to access and utilise those resources, involves enormous expense, yet will ultimately deliver unlimited returns.
While those of us here on the ground might not fully grasp it yet, for those in the market already, the case for space is obvious. Many of the world’s wealthiest individuals see the opportunity space presents and have been acting on it for more than a decade.
They see which way the wind is blowing. A confluence of earthly environmental protection, increasing technical capability and sheer scope for return on investment (no matter how large that investment might be) means that virtually all of our planet’s most historically lucrative industries, from primary resources to logistics and tech, are inevitably space bound at some point in the not so distant future.
Taken in isolation, that sounds pretty good. Space is great and giving the Earth a break for a bit would be a nice change. The surging global space sector, the space programmes that support it and the thousands of innovative companies it inspires seem to paint an optimistic picture of the future.
It’s hard not to get excited every time SpaceX launches (or lands) a rocket.
Yet that excitement should be tempered by a modicum of consideration. While there may be a symbiotic relationship between private interests and public institutions for the time being — with companies like SpaceX leaning on NASA contracts — every success feeds the narrative that the private sector can do it better alone, as well as the capacity for them to do just that, further reducing budgets and ultimately side-lining public institutions altogether. The fact that they (and others) leant on public infrastructure (and funding) to get started will eventually be lost to historical irony and self-fulfilling prophecy.
With that subtle migration comes a real conundrum — the chance for private interests to claim a piece of pie infinitely larger than anything that has ever existed before. The space economy is a sleeping leviathan, ultimately worth more than every company and even country on Earth, millions of times over. A figure that might sound absurd, until we remember — space is in the habit of defying imagination.
Space is worth the investment, even at enormous cost. However, leaving it to a few individual interests means exacerbating inequality on an unimaginable and potentially irreparable scale, ultimately allowing wealth to unduly influence free democratic society more than it already does.
In the public sector, the popular narrative of opportunity cost and false choice that plays investment in space off against earthbound concerns risks preventing us from acting in the public interest. The fact is, the possibilities arising from space-based industry have the potential to generate unprecedented public wealth and prosperity, with the capacity to fund social services and infrastructure for billions.
Imagine, for example, a wealth fund, similar to that which funds Norway’s social services and infrastructure from its oil wealth, but derived from a percentage of profits on space mining and turned to provide for people here on Earth. Such a fund could be used to reinvest in more innovative enterprises. But it could also be used to house the homeless, pay for healthcare, education and pensions and build infrastructure at the scale required to not only revolutionise our lives but reverse climate change. It could change the world. It could change everything, making democracy more resilient in the process.
We could do something like that — if we wanted. And it would be perfectly reasonable to do so, given the fact that the space sector got its start on public sector contracts and tax dollars to begin with.
But the sharing of profits from space-based resources and industry is not just about protecting democracy or addressing more terrestrial concerns. It is also about protecting space itself. Industry that fails to account for damage to the environment in which it operates can have vast and often unforeseen consequences. Something we have experienced on Earth, and see indications of in space with orbital debris.
By increasing public investment, treating space as a commons and cooperating internationally to enshrine responsible policy and ensure private profit from public resources is treated accordingly, we can achieve enormous public good, address global crises and incentivise the sustainable and efficient development of space.
What is known pales in comparison with what is yet to be known. Space offers the opportunity to not only explore new worlds, but expand every sphere of human endeavour, from the physical sciences, to the social, as well as art and culture.
When the benefits of space exploration are discussed in the media, the narrative usually sticks to the technological and scientific. But space is about far more than just science and technology. Space is an open environment — an infinite sandbox where we can experiment with new ways of thinking and doing and organising.
A place where we can work together to get things right for our collective benefit. A place where we can learn to solve problems — and not just engineering ones either.
Governance, decision making and resource management: things like pandemics and supply chain issues are exacerbated by global governance challenges. We’ve operated inside nation states for hundreds of years, but we’re slowly learning what nature has known all along — everything is connected. Working together in space pays dividends here on Earth.
Philosophy, art and music: for thousands of years, we have lived, learned and contemplated the human experience. Space would fundamentally alter that experience — adding to it immeasurably. All of the creative output stimulated by the trials, tribulations, joy and beauty of life on Earth will be dwarfed by that produced from venturing into infinite space.
Yet in order for this to happen and make the most of this opportunity, knowledge sharing is critical. Proceeding into space with antiquated divisions will only endanger people and impede development.
Whether exploring celestial bodies (such as moons, planets and asteroids), conducting scientific experiments, or learning more about the relationship between humanity and life in space — information must travel freely between all parties in order for us all to succeed.
Just as the International Space Station helped form relationships between astronauts and cosmonauts from across the globe while advancing science, increasing partnerships between nations, NGOs, universities, private enterprise and communities can unite us in progress and common purpose.
We can learn more and travel further together.
The planet is at risk. Centuries of irresponsible behaviour and systems that prioritise immediate gain over long-term consequences have created a serious threat to life on Earth that is spiralling out of control.
But as we work to repair and even reverse the damage done here at home, we also need to be careful not to repeat the mistake elsewhere. Lest we do to a thousand worlds what we have already done to one.
The sheer vastness of space can often make it seem like environmental damage is a non issue. It allows for the notion that there’s so much room, mess doesn’t matter. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Space debris in Earth orbit is already creating issues and even the largest environments can be damaged by small precipitous changes.
Responsibility in space, however, extends beyond the physical to the biological. As we touch down on other worlds, we must be extremely careful not to upset any ecosystems already in place, through pollution or the introduction of other organisms.
Finally, we have a responsibility to ourselves. With space increasingly being viewed as a potential theatre of conflict, there is a renewed obligation to develop and update treaties and international agreements, ensuring that we don’t pollute space with any of our worst habits.
If we start this journey before establishing a shared sense of responsibility and the agreements requisite to account for it, then we risk making far bigger mistakes on a far grander scale that we can possibly imagine.
But if we commit now to working together and apply pressure to leaders and representatives, we can get the jump on these problems before they happen and create a genuinely hopeful future. The only major obstacle in the way is the idea that space doesn’t belong to us.
But it does. All of us.
In the past, knowledge, resources and the capacity to move both around have individually brought great power to those who wielded them. The ability to wield all three collectively has built empires.
Throughout the colonial history of our world, we have seen how that power corrupts and abuses. Even today, we are left dealing with the lasting damage of old empires in the form of global social, economic and geopolitical issues. All while empires of a different variety set the stage for a repetition of history.
Despite no shortage of historical precedent, the implications for both individual nations and the world at large are mostly ignored. When colonial powers settled the ‘new world’ centuries ago, it would have been hard to imagine that one day, in the not too distant future, the power of that ‘new world’ would come to dwarf and dominate the old. It would have been harder still to imagine that individual private citizens of that ‘new world’ would wield greater wealth and power than entire nations. Yet we continue to underplay the potential or simply assume that things will work themselves out.
Besides historical colonialism, there is another distinct analogy to be found within the financial sector. Much like the financial sector, the lack of adequate international cooperation and agreement on policy and regulatory frameworks has created loopholes that undermine the public interest, meaning the scope for corruption and abuse of tax havens and other business practices is as limitless as space itself. Also like the financial sector, once power is ceded, it will inevitably be consulted and often deferred to over public interest in any future attempt to legislate.
Left too long, any attempt to regulate power will defer to its interests.
Whether state or corporate, power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And power over space is absolute power. Sharing it is not just a matter of wisdom and the value of democracy. It is a matter of survival.
Our collective journey into space requires new policy, new treaties and a reformation and reinforcement of democratic institutions on a global scale. It needs everyone to be involved, everyone to have a say and everyone to reap the rewards.
This is a critical moment. One where an infinite expanse of wealth, knowledge, power and ultimately opportunity will inevitably dictate the course of human history.
Allowing any single entity or small collection of entities, be they public or private, to be the gatekeepers is to irrevocably repeat the mistakes of the past and exacerbate the problems of the present.
We are presented with the opportunity to harness all that potential to inspire, engage and improve the lives of every human being — through scientific discovery, exploration and economic prosperity — as well as the challenge of balancing development with appropriate measures to protect against inequality, environmental degradation, conflict and the erosion of democracy.nt offers the chance to not only build a peaceful and prosperous future together but address some of the world’s most pressing issues.
Every government, enterprise, community and individual has a role to play and the right to participate in building our future in space. One which is shared.
Our objectives are:
- To consult, represent and lobby on behalf of communities presently disenfranchised from decision-making and the development of humanity’s future in space.
- To inform the public on the scope of possibilities in space, the return on public investment, the opportunity for public good, the impact on their lives and the risks associated with a lack of public scrutiny and oversight.
- To ensure that representative democratic principles and decision-making govern the development of space by strengthening public and democratic institutions and promoting common collaborative legislative frameworks.
- To foster partnerships and advocate for policy and agreements that share space-based technology, authority and resources in order to address global challenges such as education, poverty and climate change.
Our mission is to Share Space.
However, our first goal is quite simply to tell a different story. One that engages rather than alienates. One that demonstrates the impact space can and will have on all our lives. To that end, we are connecting with journalists, content creators and storytellers to help get the message out.
If you would like to participate and contribute to our work, please email.
If you’re interested in following us, connect on LinkedIn and visit our website www.celestialcommons.org.
Thanks for reading.