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by Ken Hodgkins

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The scope and nature of the space enterprise has evolved in significant ways since the dawning of the space age. For decades civil and national security space activities were driven by the geopolitical rivalries of the Cold War and space legal and policy-making were the exclusive province of governments. Leading global policymakers had the foresight to understand the unquestioned need for a basic common understanding on how States would operate in space. They recognized the potential value of space as a geo-strategic tool, economic driver and scientific gamechanger and used intergovernmental bodies and bilateral arrangements to shape the basic rules of the road for conducting space activities.  But this relatively stable way of doing business was shaken up by events with unforeseen positive but challenging consequences for the space community – the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the skyrocketing commercial investment in space beginning in the mid 1990’s.

The end of the Cold War brought huge opportunities for the US and Europe to take advantage of Russian space technologies and launch capabilities that had long been constrained by the acute political and security issues monopolizing the relationship between the Soviet Bloc and the Western Alliance.  Within only a few years, US companies were purchasing rocket engines from Russia and the International Space Station partners brought in Russia in  as a full participant. Equally important was Russia’s launch capabilities that allowed US companies such as Irdium and Globalstar to tap into a new avenue for gaining access to space. This all coincided with huge commercial investments in space such that the commercial sector globally was outspending governments. The unprecedented Sea-Launch venture broke through entrenched policy and political mindsets that were confronted with a master chef’s equivalent of an intergalactic bouillabaisse. That is, how do we bake, stir, boil and sauté into a meal that satisfies the palate of the most discerning consensus of space policy cuisine? Sea-Launch stir fried the money, technology, domestic law, international obligations, and intellectual expertise of the US, Russia, Ukraine, the UK ,the Cayman Islands, Norway and Liberia into a dish short of a 5 star rating as it relates to transparency and predictability.

A debate, albeit inconclusive,  was ignited  on multi-national  commercial competition, technological interoperability, technology security, domestic regulation, international law development and implementation, and what the post-Cold War landscape would look like beyond the seemingly static nature of government cooperation. So, the international and domestic policy-making apparatus was not set up to immediately handle these fast-changing events and decisions were made using old models and assumptions that had to be adjusted in a piecemeal fashion. The ad-hoc paradigm is no more effective in policy-making than it would be for fine-dining. In short,  the Sea-Launch ups and downs and the governmental policy-making equivalent to the Food Channel slogged along.

But a new dynamic has emerged with highly motivated entrepreneurs embracing a buffet of innovative concepts not driven by governments but by the desire to pursue a vision similar to that of  the medieval fisherman off the coast of Spain wondering what lies directly Westward and what would it take to begin that uncertain but exciting journey.

So, one might ask what is the connection between fine dining, Sea-Launch and the fisher off the coast of Spain? The common thread is dynamism, imagination, vision, risk-taking, civil society and entrepreneurship.

The space community is at a crossroads where these basic traits of the human condition can be translated into a common vision shaped by civil society for the future of the space enterprise.  The taken for granted globalization of instantaneous human interaction can be exploited in a unique way; to wit, the construction of a Coalition of the Like-Minded driven by civil society writ large to shape the global vision for moving us from low Earth Orbit to the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies.

Government driven technological and commercial imperatives have shaped the emergence of space policy and law as a unique realm with no real precedent as is the case with the maritime and air domain. This has set into motion a blend of governments and the civil society either acting in concert or pursuing their own imperatives that has given us a full menu of international and domestic laws and regulations that create the framework within which the space enterprise has flourished. The major weakness of this decades old paradigm is the reality that governments are not capable of keeping up with nor anticipating the rapid evolution of technologies and innovations which require transparency, predictability and equal treatment to be successful. That is why civil society has a responsibility to devote the time, intellectual firepower and vision to help the government sector make informed decisions as their fiduciary responsibility to their general publics.

The Coalition of the Like-Minded must reinforce basic principles for the future space enterprise:

    • Transparency
    • Predictability
    • Interoperability
    • Fair and Equal Governance
    • Sustainability of the space Environment
    • Use of Space Systems for Sustainability on Earth
    • Freedom of Scientific Inquiry and Data Exchange
    • Permissive International and Domestic Frameworks for civil society

The global community has benefited immeasurably from space systems for six decades at the societal, economic, scientific and security levels. There is not an aspect of every-day life that is not impacted in a positive way either directly or indirectly. Space used to be the province of governments, but today private investment and innovation are driving the space enterprise into the future at such a rapid pace that policy making is falling further and further behind. This is not an optimal business climate to invest in since any amount of uncertainty not under the control of the entrepreneur ruins any business plan. This is where civil society could be a driver for informed international policy and legal development.

While the body of international space law and practice instruments are established and serve as a roadmap for national security, civil and commercial space activities, much work needs to be done at the national level to give effect to the implementation of obligations under the UN space treaties. The private sector needs a global framework that is transparent, level, and predictable. This can only happen with a bottom up approach that necessarily relies on the advice and experience of civil society. The rule of law in space must be flexible, inclusive, and permissive for the next generation of space adventurers to excel.  Countries and companies transitioning to the new global space economy will need an unbiased and thoughtful institution that looks at the totality of the challenges ahead.

Governing new and innovative commercial ventures will require a nimble, comprehensive, and flexible vision. There is no appetite in the space sector for decades long negotiations on new binding legal instruments. The rapid pace of development makes that process obsolete before leaving the launch pad. But the Coalition of the Like-Minded could use its good offices to create a sustained network of NGOs, companies, governments, and international organizations that in effect gives us a multi-faceted vision. coalition of the like-minded.  In effect, this would offer a rich menu of legal and policy concepts that space actors can chose from and adapt to their circumstances and goals.

The Coalition of the Like-Minded is a basic concept, which if makes sense, needs to be given a mooring and not an anchor that can shift with the tides and the weather. While there must be a spirited debate on the totality of the Coalition of the Like-Minded we must also look at a mechanism that will provide a regular and sustainable platform for all to share their views on the future of the space enterprise that sets the foundation for global stability, economic growth, societal well-being and the rule of law as we proceed through the 21st Century  and beyond. The platform should provide a reliable and objective venue for civil society to set the path from Earth to the outer reaches of the galaxy. But to be part of this construct participants must be committed to transparency, interoperability, sustainability, economic well-being and global stability. The Coalition of the Like-Minded will not be an arbitor of geo political differences but an advocate for practical solutions to make the space enterprise meaningful to everyday life around the globe. This is the vision that no other government or non-government entity can fulfill.

Ken Hodgkins. Image courtesy of the author.

Ken Hodgkins is the President of International Space Enterprise Consultants (ISEC), former Director of the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology and former US Representative to the UN Committee on the Peaceful uses of Outer Space. He can be reached at [email protected].


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