Virtuous circle of space

By Dale Skran

Most NSS members take it for granted that the term “space development” is widely understood. After all, we have been running the International Space Development Conference since 1982, so it has to be well understood, right? Sadly, this is not the case. A team of NSS space experts recently participated in a NASA organized workshop aimed at providing “outside” input to the Artemis program. Much to their surprise, the NSS team found itself having to explain what they meant when they said “space development!”

NSS advocates for space “exploration, development, and settlement.”  My blog post defining space settlement appears here. “Exploration” is what NASA thinks of itself as doing, including going places for the first time, discovering new scientific knowledge, and furthering our understanding of the universe. What then might “space development” be?

The most relevant dictionary definition defines “development” as the “act or process of developing; growth; progress.” When the word “space” is added in front it is easy to see how confusion may exist. The confusion only grows when taking a look at the wiki article on “Development” where it can be seen that the term is used in an extremely large number of different contexts. This blog post is only concerned with how space advocates use the term “space development,” and not what use some other community may make of the term.

Generally, when “space development” is mentioned by space advocates it almost always refers to “space economic development.” Legal issues arising from or related to space development are covered under “space governance” or “space law.” It is also worth noting that when we refer to “property development” on the Earth, this does not involve the form of government under which the property is managed nor the culture of those who live in the property to be developed.

In some cases when space advocates refer to “space development” they have in the mind the definition of “sustainable development” used by the United Nations. This definition includes economic development but adds a variety of additional considerations such as social development and environmental protection. The topic of “space sustainability,” which logically includes “sustainable space development” is a substantial matter in its own right that I plan to address in a future blog post.

With the above in mind when NSS or the Alliance for Space Development refers to space development it includes the construction of reusable infrastructure in space, the use of space as a location to create economic value, the manufacture of products in space, the provision of services to the Earth, and the extraction of resources from objects in space. Examples of each of these include:

  1. Inspiration4, Axiom 1 [use of space to create economic value, in this case via tourism]
  2. Redwire crystal sales [manufacture of products in space]
  3. GPS, weather satellites, comsats [provision of services to the Earth]
  4. MOXIE on Mars [extraction of resources, in this case oxygen from the atmosphere]
  5. The International Space Station, Lunar Gateway [reusable infrastructure]

The first three areas relate to the creation of economic value in space, which in turn enables more space development and eventually the development of self-sustaining human communities in space. The use of space resources in space is a fundamental enabler for large scale space development and the vision of humans working and living throughout the solar system. Finally, infrastructure in space creates capabilities at various locations in space on which further space development can build in an economically sustainable fashion. Put another way, with infrastructure in space every new activity no longer requires a trip back to the Earth to get needed parts and supplies, nor does it require the expending of a specially constructed vehicle.

Space development also includes scientific and technological efforts that enable the economic development of space. As an example, the reusable first stage and fairings of the Falcon 9 have made a major contribution to space development by lowering the cost of getting to space by about 10x and by providing more frequent access to—and from—space. Starship/SuperHeavy promises a further 10x reduction in the cost of getting to space when fully operational.

Certain kinds of exploration are strong space development enablers. Virtually all asteroid exploration, including Lucy, Psyche, OSIRIS-Rex, Hayabusa I and II, and Dawn provide valuable information that is foundational to future asteroid mining. Although NEOSM is mainly for planetary defense, the same near-Earth asteroids that are potentially dangerous may also be good mining targets. The same is true of lunar probes like VIPER and Mars probes like the Ice Mapper that create geological surveys and establish the ground truth of mineral resources.

There is, however, a key enabling element required for space development, namely that the economic development of space be sustainable from an environmental viewpoint. Environmental concerns in space are sufficiently different from those on the Earth that new terminology may be required. Because there is no “ecosystem” as it exists on the Earth, space advocates sometimes talk as though no space environmental issues exist, which is not the case. This is a largish topic I will leave for a future blog post, but I note that space debris in Earth orbit is an issue that requires immediate action before it becomes a barrier to space development. NSS has been active on this issue as can be seen in the following NSS position papers: Comment on Orbital Debris Research and Development Plan, Space Debris Removal, Salvage, and Use: Maritime Lessons, and Orbital Debris: Overcoming Challenges. Space debris is tricky to manage from many angles, but from a space development perspective methods of minimizing risks without impeding innovation and business operations are essential. It is easy to imagine a heavy regulatory regime that in the name of controlling space debris effectively banned space development.

A strong legal foundation is also essential to space development. Unfortunately, the fundamental “law of space,” the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), pays scant attention to commercial activity in space. The later Moon Agreement (often referred to as the “Moon Treaty”) raises even greater concerns. It should be noted that NSS, and its predecessor organization the L5 Society, have a long history of opposing the Moon Agreement. These efforts reached a kind of culmination in an April 6, 2020 Executive Order, which stated among other things “the United States does not consider the Moon Agreement to be an effective or necessary instrument to guide nation states regarding the promotion of commercial participation in the long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the Moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies.” The recent U.S. led Artemis Accords (now with 21 signatories) seek to build support for the extraction of resources in space along with associated notification zones, and the ownership of the resources so extracted based on the OST, rather than the much less supported Moon Agreement. We stand at the beginning of the true age of space, and the fight has just begun to secure the right of future space settlers to the kind of economic freedoms we enjoy on the Earth in many countries.

A key idea driving the NSS strategy is that space development enables and drives the establishment of space settlements. In other words, if we advocate for the economic development of space, that will over time create the conditions under which communities in space can be created in a sustainable fashion rather than as a giant public works effort.

NSS works through the Alliance for Space Development to advance an annual set of objectives. The objectives for 2022 include:

  1. Support planetary defense by continued funding of NASA’s NEO Surveyor Mission (NEOSM) and other planetary defense initiatives.
  2. Support commercial LEO Development by fully funding NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) Program.
  3. Support the development of Space Solar Power capabilities through multiple programs between the Departments of Commerce and Defense.

Although NEOSM aims to protect the Earth and all of humanity from dangerous asteroids, finding the locations of nearby asteroids and learning about their composition strongly enables eventual asteroid mining. The Commercial LEO Destinations Program plans to replace the ISS with a network of commercial stations that are less expensive to operate, enabling the growth of a self-sustaining LEO economy including materials manufacturing, tourism, movie production, and the provision of services to support NASA programs. Finally, space solar power beamed back to the Earth promises clean energy and the resolution of the current climate crisis.

None of these three objectives mentioned directly calls for the construction of space settlements [note that the ISS/CLD are bases or outposts], but each one brings closer the day when humans will be working, living and thriving in communities throughout the solar system.

On a concluding note, the current state of space development is routinely exaggerated by those who fear the long-term consequences of humanity’s expansion into space, as well as overly-optimistic space advocates. In fact, we are at the very beginning of space development, and it is far from clear that the current “boom” will continue. After having experienced decades of stagnation in space, SpaceX launching 6 times in a month feels like the future has arrived. Sadly, it has not. To put things in perspective, Newark Airport in New Jersey has 1,100 flights PER DAY. 2021 was an all-time record for orbital launches—133 vehicles reached orbit. If the global orbital launch rate increased by three orders of magnitude—1,000x—this would be much less than the economic activity deriving from a single major airport.

© 2022 Dale Skran


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