With big businesses taking a keen interest in its commercial use, the space race is set to get more heated in the future
Earlier this month, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that the space agency is working with actor Tom Cruise to film the first movie in space. The news comes as no surprise and confirms NASA’s growing interest in finding additional commercial ventures for the space programme during the Trump administration.
The US space agency has been focused on its goal of landing the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024, with American companies playing an essential role in establishing a sustainable presence. As a result, NASA will continue research and testing in low-earth orbit to inform its lunar exploration plans, even while working with the private sector to test technologies, train astronauts and strengthen the burgeoning space economy.
NASA has also been looking to open the International Space Station to wider commercial use beyond scientific research for new drugs and novel materials that can only be grown in zero-gravity conditions.
The station, built as a partnership among dozens of countries (the United States and Russia are its primary operators), maintains the US portion of the orbiting laboratory. Astronauts conduct scientific and commercial research, which annually costs US taxpayers about $3-4 billion, according to a 2018 NASA report.
Providing expanded opportunities at the International Space Station to manufacture, market and promote commercial products and services will help catalyse and expand space exploration markets for many businesses. So much so that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos outlined a long-term vision for putting a trillion people in space colonies with one small step coming soon: an infrastructure starting with lunar lander Blue Moon. “We are going to build a road to space,” Bezos said last year, adding, “and then amazing things will happen.”
China planned to send the first batch of asteroid exploration spacecraft by the end of 2020. While we are yet to see if that will happen, Russia also plans to construct a permanent base on the moon after 2025 for possible extraction of helium.
Advances in reusable rockets, lowered per-launch costs and miniaturisation of satellites are opening up business opportunities well beyond aerospace and defense, and into IT hardware and telecom, according to Morgan Stanley. The global space industry is expected to generate a revenue of $1.1 trillion or more in 2040, up from the current $350 billion, according to a 2019 report by the firm.
Recently, Trump passed an executive order allowing Americans ‘the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space’. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 sets out the principles that govern all space activities. India is a signatory to the treaty. As of June 2019, 109 countries were party to the treaty, while another 23 have signed it, but have not completed ratification.
The other body of law governing outer space is the 1979 Moon Agreement, signed by 18 nations, besides the US, Russia and China. India is a party to the Moon Agreement and is perhaps the only country to have signed the treaty with independent spaceflight capability. But it has not ratified it. The Moon Agreement appears to suggest a legal framework for developing the needed laws rather than a prescriptive set of detailed laws.
Trump’s order seems to imply that those who have the money and technology to exploit outer space resources should be entitled to exploit that advantage. From a plain reading of the treaties governing outer space, Kartik Ganapathy, partner, Induslaw, feels there is no clarity on a company acquiring a significant market position exploiting outer space mineral resources without ‘colonising’ any part of outer space. “There is no international regime or international consensus governing the exploitation of outer space resources.
It is likely that international issues, including what the common heritage of mankind means with respect to outer space will be discussed and settled only with the developing exploration of outer space. While there has been some success in extracting samples from an asteroid, extracting resources that would lead to either a self-sustaining enterprise or even a colony seem to be years in the future. Questions as to how such material would be processed and used on earth (either as fuel or inputs) are still subject to the fantastical hypothesis in the face of lack of physical data,” he says. As technology develops, the space race is set to get more heated and see more conflict in the future.