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“It's almost like a manifest destiny: at some point there will be a critical mass of humanity in space.”

NASA’s former “space architect” Gary Martin is describing the possible colonization, and commercialization of resources, of the moon, Mars and beyond. Martin, now retired from NASA, spent decades investigating strategies for human spaceflight and for potentially sustainable space exploration based on commerce, industry and tourism. “The desire to explore drives humanity, and there is huge availability of resources in places that we can see with telescopes,” Martin says.  “And the more and more money it makes, the more opportunity there will be for everyone to get jobs.”

It’s an optimistic vision of the future. Multiple countries including China, India, Russia and the United States have expressed a desire to build a moon base. Meanwhile, private companies led by space entrepreneurs have been developing their own space tourism programs. The moon, asteroids and other planets may offer up a wealth of minerals and heavy metals that could one day be mined and sent back to Earth, while an economy may be powered by trade in food, fuel, and oxygen to and from our home planet. Such scenarios may seem far from realization, but they raise important questions about how space might eventually be carved up and how the space economy should be regulated—assuming it even can be. A group of researchers led by astrobiologist Pascale Ehrenfreund and space-policy expert Henry Hertzfeld at George Washington University argues that now is the time to hash out these issues, before it is too late.

“Humans have now been in space about six decades, and strangely there have been many more astronauts in space— more than 600 people — than there have been humans on the bottom of the ocean,” notes Ehrenfreund. Around 80 countries in the world have space agencies, while private industry is increasing competition. “The space sector has developed at an accelerated speed, so we can forecast that there might be settlements in the future and new societies on other celestial bodies, even if it will not be tomorrow,” she says.

Ehrenfreund trained in both molecular biology and astronomy, spurred on by an interest in possible life in the wider universe. “Some people said that I have a problem with dimensions—looking in both the microscope and in the telescope,” she laughs. Her new space-policy initiative, developed with Hertzfeld, aims to bring together experts from multiple countries and corporations through conferences and workshops to make policy suggestions that could be presented, for example, to the United Nations. In tandem, the project will include in-depth interviews and surveys to help gauge how future societies in space might take shape. 

“There are three major elements to this: international cooperation; the international governance or managing of space; and social aspects of civilisations in space, including ethics, religion and theology,”

says Hertzfeld. 

Hertzfeld brings decades-long expertise in space policy, having worked as an economist at NASA and also trained in law. The goals and limitations of future space programs will itself be a topic for discussion in these meetings, he notes. Within the US, individual states apply independently for spaceport licenses, motivated by the boosts to education and local job creation that go hand-in-hand with active space programs. Similarly, the European Space Agency is made up of multiple European countries, each with its own ambitions and agenda. “We can’t really talk effectively or accurately about regulations until we know what exactly we are regulating,” says Hertzfeld.

As things currently stand, space is regarded—like the oceans — as belonging to all humanity. “Every nation has free access to space, without discrimination,” says Hertzfeld. A number of UN treaties on outer space were passed, beginning in the late 1960’s, but, as Martin notes, the reasons nations had for agreeing to them were not wholly altruistic. “The Soviet Union and the U.S. didn’t know who was going to win the space race and they didn’t want the other country to claim the moon, so they signed.” 

Now, however, the number of stakeholders is greatly amplified. Both nations and corporations may want to mine celestial bodies for heavy metals and minerals that may be closer to the surface of these bodies and easier to access than on Earth. There is more than just money and territory claims to think about, but also safety concerns and responsibility for damage. “Hopefully nothing goes wrong and we don’t have a collision up there because that would be catastrophic,” says Hertzfeld. “We don’t have the technology right now, in space, to clean up things.”

Given the potential impact, is it possible to ensure that all relevant parties take these planned discussions seriously? “I’m particularly interested in the question of international cooperation,” says Jana Fey, a postdoctoral researcher at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, who will be running some of the interviews and surveys. For her, the key is identifying common drivers for these diverse groups. “It’s about going out there and understanding what are the values that are motivating different governments, different stakeholders,” says Fey. “It’s about making sure that the different voices of different stakeholders are heard as they’re emerging in this fabric.”

One of the more intriguing elements that Fey will be examining is how human societies may evolve on celestial bodies. It is too early to speculate on exactly what form those communities might take, says Fey, but the starting point will be thinking about how ethics and religion have shaped civilisations on our planet. “It’s difficult to guess exactly what will happen, but I think we can assume that these might be inspired by society on Earth,” she says. “We can start by looking at what is happening here — religion is a part of all cultures—and asking what is and what isn’t working.” 

Even if all stakeholders come to the table and agree on policy recommendations, enforcing them may still be tough. Martin hopes that the process will be organic. “As people start these discussions, if they see it is in their best interest to join in, they may choose to do so,” he says. Martin notes there are reasons to be optimistic: agreements have been reached, and adhered to, about how to regulate communication frequency bands around Earth, for instance. And, as of December 2023, more than 30 countries have signed the non-binding Artemis Accords, which outline principles of cooperation for the civil exploration and use of the moon, Mars, comets and asteroids, for peaceful purposes. However, it may be that certain countries or bodies have no wish to join discussions or be bound by rules. If so, understanding that sooner rather than later will also be a valid takeaway from the project, says Martin. 

“There’s so many issues with space because there is no world government, just some treaties that are not enforceable,” says Martin. Unfortunately, there are just as many pessimistic visions of the future—which could see societal inequalities exacerbated—as those filled with hope. Imagine a powerful company or nation that chooses to ignore the regulations, sets up a moon base and starts mining and monopolizing access to minerals and water. “It could go sideways, really badly, and someone could dominate the moon’s resources,” Martin says. Every time others get close to the moon, the rogue nation or corporation could destroy their ship, he speculates. “That’s a horrible scenario, but I think it’s worth discussing.”

It’s precisely because the future is unknown that these conversations should be carried out now. “It’d be nice to have some people discussing guardrails because there are so many possibilities,” Martin says. “These kinds of studies are really important because humans are so unpredictable.”