The Final Frontier

By Cameron Davis

On March 22nd, the Roosevelt Institute met to discuss the issue of neutrality and conservation in space and how the increasing possibility of energy harvesting in from asteroids, planets, and other celestial bodies should be approached by the federal government. Although space exploration and exploitation seem to be far off, setting the groundwork for the future is an important step in order to guide progress for years to come. Co-Center Directors for Energy and the Environment Charles Harper and Simon Schwartz focused the discussion on four major areas – space law, mining in space, scientific missions, and contamination of space and earth environments.

Harper began the discussion by giving a run-down of some of the most important points for the day’s meeting, including lesser-known space legislation such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which banned national appropriation of celestial bodies and outlawed weapons of mass destruction from the atmosphere; the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 which permits all private and commercial satellites and launches; and, most recently, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, a bill that died in committee that would have regulated development of property rights for states and companies alike on claims to celestial bodies. By framing the debate with the key current legislation on the topic, Harper and Schwartz contextualized how contemporary international bodies and federal governments alike are approaching outer space.

The discussion naturally began, then, with whether either public or private missions should be allowed to use extraterrestrial resources for survival, fuel, mining, or other personal uses. The debate on this point was heated: while many Roosevelt members feared that over-regulating space could discourage private entities from becoming involved and ultimately stunt scientific progress, several other members were more cautious. “If governments don’t regulate these corporations,” seemed to be the thinking, “what’s to stop them from making unsafe, reckless, and exploitative decisions just in the name of profit?”

With that question still unanswered, Schwartz went on to re-contextualize the debate within the purview of space ecosystems – how important, exactly, is environmental consideration of celestial bodies, and to what extent should conservation be prioritized over lucrative resource extraction? This question proved to be quite contentious, dividing the room into two primary factions: one was all too cognizant of the mistakes made with our own earth and warned that without heavy regulation, our actions could similarly destroy the delicate environments of thousands of other bodies; the other group demanded a more humanist line of thought, explaining that by using other planets to our advantage we could live more at peace with our own earth without putting undue stress on the resources it gives us.

The discussion took a brief detour before final thoughts thanks to an interruption by an individual representing Mama Aerospace (http://www.mamaaerospace.com/), who used the time that he was given when called upon to pitch his own personal deep space transportation company and ask for general feedback about the policy implications of his initiative. The individual brought a sense of realism and practicality to the otherwise nebulous policy discussion, and helped underscore the importance of the topic in policymaking for the not-so-distant future.

Ultimately, participants in the discussion were unable to come to a consensus about how the United States and international bodies should regulate outer space (if at all) and deal with the crossroads between scientific exploration and environmental responsibility. Even though it may be difficult, continuing one without the expense of the other should be the focus of future policy decisions.