Need to regulate human invasion of Space

Free for all in space set to boomerang on humankind

Business

September 14, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Need to regulate human invasion of Space

The future of space exploration is threatened with over exploitation and pollution (Photo: SpaceX/Unsplash)

As private companies from around the world begin to lust after the unlimited opportunities that unfettered space exploration offers to them, the space is threatened with over exploitation and pollution, just as it has happened all over the Earth. With going to the space becoming as accessible as trekking to the Mount Everest, there is a clear need for urgent multilateral regulation of spatial exploration, before space becomes just another clogged expressway.

For long, it was the purview of the government to decide who would get to the space. But no longer so. Now, almost anyone who can afford to pay for it seems to be getting a ticket. For instance, in the matter of a few weeks, after Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, another billionaire is set to blast off into space. Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of unicorn Shift4 Payments, has chartered a SpaceX Dragon rocket and is going with three other crew members, all of them civilians, making it the first all civilian crew of SpaceX rockets.

Indeed, in barely six decades, travelling to space has come a long way. It was just on April 12, 1961 that the first manned space mission was launched from the then Soviet cosmodrome of Baikonur in Kazakhstan. Yuri Gagarin, aboard a Soyuz rocket, became the first man to have ever been into the space. Humankind has indeed come a long distance since then as astronauts from nearly two dozen countries have made it to the space, either on their own national systems or those of allies, read Russia and the United States primarily. Spatial missions have become more of a norm today and not only have humans been to the moon, but now there is a race between some countries to send a manned mission to the Mars as well.

In the last six decades, space exploration as a field has undergone sea changes. While earlier it was essentially a two-horse race between the United States and the Soviet Union, today more than a dozen nations across the globe, including China and India, have spatial launch and exploration capabilities, to various degrees, of course. Another huge change in space exploration that has come about in the past decade or so is the entry of private companies in the domain.

The most advanced among these is Elon Musk’s Space X which has not only a launch-capable rocket, Falcon 9, but also ferried two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station last year. Amazon’s boss Jeff Bezos has also set up a firm, Blue Origin, to launch spatial missions and British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has focused on launching space tourism business where anyone can opt for a quick dash to the space, mainly in Low Earth Orbit to get a glimpse of the planet from about 100 km above. In some ways Virgin’s business will find direct competition from Blue Origin which also plans space tourism as one of its activities.

Colonisation of space

Meanwhile, the competition is not only between private companies. There is a competition on between the space superpowers of today, US, Russia and China, to extend their control and dominance beyond Earth and into the space. Their plans include mining precious minerals that are in limited supply on the Earth. Some other plans include setting up permanently manned bases on the Mars and beyond, pretty much like the bases set up in the Antarctic. In short, some countries now plan to colonise the space.

Even though many of these plans are still on the drawing board and years away from any practical application, they indicate the direction that humans are set to take in future. Before long there may be a mad scramble between private companies as well as countries to occupy and colonise any part or activities in the space.

While it is generally considered good to have a democratisation of any business, the kind of rivalries and competition that is likely to occur soon enough in space exploration calls for an urgent action at a global level. Space, liked the oceans and the atmosphere, is a shared heritage which needs to be handled with utmost care. We have already hundreds of examples of the kind of long-term and often irreversible damage that mindless rush for riches on the Earth has caused across the globe. Most of this happened due to lack of a clear and strict international regulation of human activities on the Earth.

It is imperative to learn from lessons on the Earth and apply them in the Space as well. Currently, it is pretty much like the wild west out there. Anyone with capability reach the Space can do anything there with no oversight and no control. Hence, some companies have drawn up plans to actually set up human colonies in outer space and on the Moon as well as planets like Mars.

The developments of last six decades have already led to the first signs of long-term damage to the Space as can be seen from the problem of excessive debris of satellites and other human-launched objects that are floating around in Low Earth or Near Earth Orbits which pose a clear and present danger to satellites and possibly even launchers ferrying astronauts on space missions.

Today, the threat of collision with another satellite or rocket may yet be limited, but without any regulation, this is likely to become an omnipresent danger, especially if the satellites or other human-made objects tumble out of skies and fall on the earth. It’s time that countries around the world get together under the aegis of a body-like the United Nations, but more effective and armed with real powers to sanction rule-breaking governments or private firms, to regulate the human activities in space. It could mandate or allocate quotas for each country for space exploration or perhaps even better to have a cooperative of all nations, rich or poor, developed or developing where countries pool in the resources for space-related activities and share the benefits. This will drive human greed out of space exploration and replace it with real scientific pursuit of using the spatial resources for the shared good of humanity. Idealistic it may be, but without a strict check on what humans can or should do in the Space or on a planet or another heavenly body, we risk to reduce the near earth space to the same mess as we have created on our own planet.

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