How to maximise the benefits of a new space age

Thomas Cremins
Special Advisor to the Administrator for Strategy and Policy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
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Space is becoming both more accessible and more relevant. A growing number of governments and private companies are getting involved and a wide range of new applications are being developed. The steady emergence of a space economy will have broad and far-reaching effects on the global economy, creating opportunities for billions of people. How can we ensure that space is developed sustainably for the benefit of all? At the same time, we are experiencing a dramatic explosion of knowledge related to epic questions such as are we alone and what does the universe look like? This shift creates fundamentally new opportunities on individual, organizational and global levels.

At the beginning of the first Space Age, signalled by the launch of Sputnik in 1958, a handful of world powers commanded the resources and technology necessary to explore space. Today, a second Space Age is evolving with a proliferation of actors in a multitude of activities.

The current “space economy” – from the edge of space to low-Earth orbit, the location of the International Space Station, and further out to geo-synchronous orbit, home to a valuable ring of satellites – generates roughly $300 billion in annual revenue. We meanwhile are starting to expand our presence in space by fostering human and robotic activity in a deeper region that includes the Moon, near-Earth asteroids and Mars.

Traditional space powers are extending their efforts in low-Earth orbit and the regions beyond, while the ability to utilize space has dramatically shifted to include dozens of developed and developing nations, large and small companies and private entrepreneurs. In the last decade, new spacefaring nations have gained experience building satellites and developing applications from their data, broadening space accessibility.

In the United States, commercial space companies are providing some of the cargo transportation and other services to the International Space Station. In the near future, this will also include the transportation of astronauts.

Recent history suggests that the diffusion of space technology and applications will have transformative effects on human development. Encouraging private sector involvement in space increases the scope for creating new markets and industrial sectors and unleashing future waves of innovation, which could bring a multitude of benefits. So what is the best way to lay the building blocks to develop a viable and sustainable economy in low-Earth orbit?

A blending of commercial activities and government space efforts will likely continue to evolve as the public sector supports a range of systems, technologies and applications within public-private partnerships, and private sector actors further mature technologies and capabilities.

In addition, a broad strategy would involve established spacefaring nations partnering with emerging space powers to foster mutually beneficial cooperation, strengthen norms and increase stability in space. This cooperation can take many forms with varying degrees of intensity. For example, the United States, Europe, China, Japan, India and other international partners are building constellations of satellites that increasingly operate as part of an overall Earth observation system that provides data to the general public worldwide.

The benefits are already astounding, as millions of people use these data for educational, scientific and commercial applications, such as improving classroom instruction and local agriculture; forecasting outbreaks of disease; detecting forest fires; and monitoring natural resources. The beneficial impact on quality of life will only increase if we have the strategic foresight and political will to improve space accessibility.

Concerted action by governments around the world will be necessary to ensure space accessibility and relevancy continues to be sustainable and to grow. With the proliferation of interested public and private actors, space is becoming increasingly crowded, raising issues such as orbital debris and interference. We also need to thoughtfully address the use of space resources, such as planetary and celestial materials.

Space sustainability, or the ability of all nations and actors to utilize and access space for peaceful purposes, may be best achieved when a code of conduct governs actions and responsibilities. Ideally, as the number of actors benefiting from space rises, the pool of stakeholders expands, creating a powerful source of stability as norms regarding long-term sustainability of outer space become more widely shared.

How best can we enable cooperation to expand the scope and benefits of space efforts while stimulating healthy competition among both public and private actors? How can we ensure that space is managed sustainably as access increases?

While we manage the stewardship of space responsibly and encourage the development of a sustainable space economy, we also seek to expand human presence further beyond low-Earth orbit and deeper into space. This next wave of expansion offers new opportunities and benefits for future generations by improving fundamental human knowledge, addressing global challenges such as potentially hazardous asteroids and enabling us to utilize resources and conduct research on the Moon, near-Earth asteroids and Mars.

How can we best formulate and implement these activities to achieve broad benefits for the world and increase economic opportunities and growth? Placing this shift on the global agenda is important to build on existing momentum for the sustainable use of space and to address the significant challenges of an increasingly complex and vital frontier.

This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.

Author: Thomas Cremins has worked in a range of critical and leading edge governmental and executive assignments for NASA. 

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