Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Watch this Space

A number of recent Hollywood movies set in Space have reinvigorated the debate surrounding security and governance issues beyond our relatively neatly divided and intelligible earthly lands. Once limited to the realm of science-fiction, the realities of space tourism, low earth orbit (LEO) traffic, asteroid mining and the colonization of the moon and mars necessitate some very real consideration.

The 2009 film Avatar highlighted the rise of profit seeking non-state actors in space - the focus of a recent Al Jazeera Fault Lines episode Space, Inc. Major budget cuts to NASA have led to a rush of private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences to fill the demand for space exploration capabilities. From private tours and moon hotels to asteroid mining and Helium-3 extraction, the opportunities seem as limitless as Space itself. But this hopeful and optimistic narrative can be a dangerous one.

The rhetoric driving support for the wave of initiatives by deep-pocketed, star-gazing entrepreneurs is reminiscent of the manifest destiny and profiteering themes that provided major undercurrents for Avatar and the 2013 dystopian sci-fi film Elysium. And while such a wild west, libertarian spirit might be the driver for exciting, out-of-this world innovation, the risks of unbridledness are difficult to ignore. A case in point is the increasing threat of LEO traffic and orbital debris, which was one of the few technical features the 2013 film Gravity seemed to get right.

Finally, competition and saber-rattling among state actors still remains relevant, with concerns of crisis-related interference, intentional peacetime interference, and inadvertent peacetime interference cited in the April Council on Foreign Relations report on 'Dangerous Space Incidents' as most probable. The usual suspects, China, North Korea and Iran were deemed the most dangerous of potential actors.

Elinor Ostrom’s seminal theory on the Tragedy of The Commons is highly relevant here. Findings from case-studies on land-grazing, forestry and water irrigation might do well to inform the management of extraterrestrial resources. Yet Ostrom’s research based ‘8 Principles for Managing a Commons’ seem understandably earthbound and ill equipped to handle the complexities of Space. Her first principle, 'Define clear group boundaries' already illustrates such limitations. Initiatives such as the The Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities and International Space Code of Conduct however, prove that all is not lost.

As more countries and corporations vie for a piece of the galactic pie, it will be interesting to see if attempts at developing mechanisms to oversee responsible behaviour in Space can ensure that these small steps for man truly equate to giant leaps for mankind. Watch this Space.

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