Watching Bezos and Branson battle it out for supremacy in a show of tech testosterone may have muddied the previously altruistic ideal of space exploration, but they have also brought the reality closer. It is no longer a question of if but when, and why?
To those of us raised in the 1980s, space blazed into our homes aboard the Starship Enterprise. Some lacklustre planetary landscapes aside, the vision of space exploration set forth was noble and altruistic: “To explore new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” These were ideals to aspire to, so we believed that space travel might be possible in our lifetime, at least for the best and the brightest.
And so, for idealists, the past few months have been somewhat conflicting. On the one hand, we have reusable rockets and more sustainable fuels. On the other, we have Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, sort-of-astronauts, and the spectre of near-space becoming another playground of the rich. These missions had none of the reassuringly sober procedural of the uniformed NASA rank-and-file, an array of support staff fronted by intimidatingly capable astronauts.
No, this was Bros in Space. And everything was awesome!
Predictably, lots of people didn’t share that enthusiasm, and the backlash was brutal, some of it unfair. It seemed space technology, which had been advancing gradually since the Moon landing, was suddenly dominated by non-agency players.
But these high-profile private contractors have prompted an overdue debate: how close is space travel? Who owns space? And who polices us when we get there?
One of the current difficulties is that Earth’s atmosphere makes for an expensive escape and a dangerous return.
NASA’s current Moon mission, Artemis, is partnered with Canada (CSA) and Europe (ESA). It aims to put the first woman on the lunar surface, and to build an orbiting space station around the Moon called the Lunar Gateway.
Dr Aidan Cowley is a science advisor and spaceship co-ordinator at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Munich. Getting to the Moon is, he says, only the start of the problem.
“The challenges you face on the Moon are temperature gradients. The lunar day is up to 100C and the lunar night cycle can drop to minus 160-180C,” he says. “There are also challenges with radiation. On Earth, we’re protected by the magnetosphere; on the Moon, there’s no protection. So, if there was a solar flare or another radiation event, the astronauts could be exposed to a very high radiation dose. The other issue is micrometeorite impacts. As the Moon has no atmosphere, there’s a constant bombardment of the Moon surface by micrometeorites.”
The Moon is highly hostile, adding a coat of dust to everything; fine basaltic sand called regolith. “It’s an interesting resource, but it’s also an absolute hassle to deal with because it gets everywhere, it sticks to your spacesuit, it gets into the seals and joints of everything,” explains Dr Cowley. “It can get into the lungs of the astronauts and have unknown health implications.”
It is also a challenge to find materials to build habitats and help provide water and fuel.
As with building anywhere, it’s cheaper to use the local materials. “One of the reasons we want to build that classic geodesic dome-type structure is to protect them against radiation. Even half a metre of regolith packed up around a habitat would give sufficient protection. It will also help control the temperature and provide mechanical protection against micrometeorites. This is the reason we’re looking into these resources. It’s to allow us to have a higher degree of safety for the astronauts when they’re there for months at a time.”
Cowley says the timescale ranges from the end of this decade to the end of the next.
It is tremendously exciting. But space-aficionados have been in something like suspended animation waiting for an advancement like this since at least the 1980s — if not the 1960s.
Now, the achievement of the Moon landing seems so much more impressive. When many Irish people didn’t even have phones, never mind televisions, a spacecraft left Earth and landed on the Moon, with technology capable of escaping the lunar surface and returning to our planet. It was stunning; a record that still stands, 50 years later.
But Apollo 11 isn’t a repeatable exercise. “It was an objective that was just about achievable,” explains Dr Niall Smith, head of research at MTU, which runs the space studies programme. “When Kennedy said we’d send a man to the Moon and return him safely by the end of the decade, there were a lot of engineers at NASA going, ‘We have no hope of doing this.’ But they ploughed a lot of money into the project.”
Not everything went to plan. “There was the Apollo 1 fire on the pad where the crew sadly lost their lives,” says Smith. “Even when Apollo 11 was landing, Armstrong had to take manual control to avoid some boulders. That kind of space exploration has always been composed of fighter pilots and people who are used to danger and willing to put their lives on the line. That only brings you so far because it’s costly.”
Then came the catastrophes — Challenger, which broke apart seconds into its flight, killing all seven of its crew in 1986, and Columbia, which broke up on re-entry, also claiming seven lives, in 2003. These demanded a strategic rethink.
“You had to build devices that were more reliable, which could be reused,” Smith says. “You couldn’t have this type of mission failing. You can do it once, and then say, ‘OK, we learned from that mistake.’ But it happened twice. Something fundamentally needed to be changed.
“Since then, a lot more people are working on the problem, distributed globally. Competitors like SpaceX [Elon Musk’s company] are involved because they see the economic opportunity and have since started taking people to the International Space Station (ISS).”
But what are we in space for?
There are consistent arguments that space money is wasted money, that every tax euro should be spent solving inequity, injustice and poverty, which are difficult causes to counter. All the while, our footprint in space expands, increasing the pressure on national space agencies. In this context, maybe private contractors can help by picking the low-hanging fruit. Or rather, by supplying it.
“NASA has a mission to support the ISS and be a launch provider,” says Dr Ronan Wall, manager of UCL’s Centre For Space Research. “The reason why commercialising space was good, in a way, is that commercial organisations could look after these tasks and NASA could concentrate on the areas where there are no commercial returns, like getting to the Moon and going to Mars.”
That isn’t to say national space exploration is becoming extinct. For a government, no potential breakthrough is as effective a spur as political imperatives. Technology means we can go to space, but politics means we will.
“Years ago when I was a young systems engineer, we had all these great technologies and great ideas. I was told, ‘Look, the most important thing is politics, finance, and then technology in that order,” says Dr Wall. “If you don’t have the political will, it doesn’t matter how well it works. If you don’t have the money, it doesn’t matter how well it works. Internationally, if you see China growing in capability, that, in itself, could create a new space race. Because getting back to the Moon first or getting to Mars first could be a real prestige bonus.”
So, given that we can get there, how do we make the best of it? Historically, early pioneers are not noted for their virtue. The Wild West is a shadow hanging over all new frontiers. In short, can we trust our envoys to be ethical stewards of new environments when we haven’t been good keepers of our own?
There is hope. Some 111 countries are parties to keystone legislation, the UN’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty. A further 23 have signed but not ratified. The Treaty states that countries cannot lay claim to the Moon or other celestial bodies.
“The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) developed at the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) sets up the basic framework,” explains Dr Chris Johnson, space advisor at the Secure World Foundation and lecturer in international space law at Georgetown Law in Washington DC.
“All the activities that take place in space, whether they’re governmental or non-governmental, all of those things are seen the same in international law as national activities.”
“If an object falls back down to Earth — and we’ve seen this recently with a Chinese rocket body that had an uncontrolled re-entry that crashed off the coast of Mauritius — if damage occurs on the surface of the Earth, the launching state is liable.”
There is a legal and regulatory framework, but as Dr Sinead O’Sullivan, space economist at Harvard Business School explains, it’s still in progress.
“Regulation is always easiest to think about when you compare it to another industry,” she says. “When you compare it to financial markets, for example, it’s the Wild West. I think this is one of the reasons people are trying to commercialise the industry quickly. Because they’ll recoup returns that aren’t regulated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It definitely encourages innovation”
Dr O’Sullivan mentions that asteroid mining had not traditionally been allowed, but that has since changed. “When it comes to buying part of an asteroid, you can now do that. Regulations that did exist are being removed or are changing quite quickly.”
In 2020, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that the agency “is buying lunar soil from a commercial provider". He continued: “It’s time to establish the regulatory certainty to extract and trade space resources.”
This is because some states have permitted these actions under their own legislation, Dr O’Sullivan explains. “The US, Luxembourg, the UAE and Japan have national space law that says our companies can go and mine the Moon and mine asteroids. The US also has the Artemis Accords. So if you want to partner with NASA, to take part in the gateway missions to the Moon, including commercial and human exploration, the US would like you to sign these accords. They are multilateral approaches to space law, and 11 countries are party to them. There’s been a mixed international reaction because they’re addressing things that countries think should be addressed at the higher COPUOS level or even the UN General Committee.”
The Artemis Accords are a legal framework which create “safety zones” around mining sites on the lunar surface.
Supporters argue that the accords are necessary for the kind of in-situ resource exploration required to fuel and supply a lunar base. Not everyone is convinced of the Artemis project, however, notably the Russians.
“The most important thing here would be to base this programme on the principles of international cooperation that we’ve all used,” the director-general of Russian state space agency Roscosmos, Dimitry Rogozin, said last year. “If we could get back to considering making these principles the foundation of the programme, then Roscosmos could also consider its participation.”
Now, unsurprisingly, as countries forge ahead with what seems like inconsistent space legislation, geopolitics and national security are being drawn into the loop. “In the space industry, I sit closer to the geopolitical world and the defence and national security staff, than a lot of people realise,” says Dr O’Sullivan. “Most of space is thought of, as far as the government is concerned, as a war-fighting domain.”
So maybe the new space pioneers have reason to forge ahead in a different direction?
In Christian Davenport’s book Space Barons: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk And The Quest To Colonise The Cosmos, one of the apparent frustrations of the entrepreneurs is what they see as the hulking bureaucracy they encounter with state infrastructure.
“Essentially if you think about current technology developments, we know that the law is not keeping pace — this is amplified in the space law context. Space law has not kept up with advancements and the private sector,” says Dr Julia Muraszkiewicz, practice manager at Trilateral Research and expert in international law, with an interest in space law.
“On the national front there are countries which are more advanced when it comes to state legislation, for example, the US and Luxembourg. The OST is the main legislation, but it is from 1967. The Liability Convention is from 1972. All these laws are to some degree outdated.”
In the absence of updated legislation, ethicists are trying to help guide designers and technologists. For example, what is the protocol for encountering another species? What is a species?
“My view of this time in space ethics is similar to what I imagine it was like in the early 1970s when animal welfare ethics, medical ethics and environmental ethics were being discussed,” says Zachary Goldberg, associate research manager at Trilateral Research.
“The concept of meeting another species is quite broad. We tend to think of humanoid aliens, which seems unlikely, but we might encounter microbial plant life or fossilised plant life.”
We don’t, as yet, have a final, settled set of ethical guidelines for the question: does extraterrestrial life have inherent value?
“Fossilised bacteria on Mars could have research value. Mars and Earth had similar environments until about four billion years ago. Mars’ development went one way and Earth’s another. We could learn a great deal about Earth’s future environment from fossils on Mars. It could change our approach to sustainability,” says Goldberg.
Where is Ireland in all of this? We have been a member of ESA since 1975, and there is a National Space Strategy. There’s also a growing community of technologists, astrophysicists and start-ups working in the sector. Somewhat surprisingly, the Irish space industry directory has roughly 70 companies.
“Some of them are in satellite and antenna production but the work they’re doing is very much space-focussed,” explains Peter Finnegan, head of new ventures at UCC’s Tyndall Institute. Finnegan explains that the Government, through Enterprise Ireland, has supported these ventures, and companies have been successful in licensing their IP to larger space contractors.
EIRSAT1 will be the country’s first satellite in space, launched as part of an ESA programme. Jessica Erkal, a UCD doctoral student, is in charge of product assurance. She’s currently at the European Southern Observatory based in Munich, working on star formation.
“My role in EIRSAT is specifically product assurance — which is quality control, failure proofing the mission.”
After her PhD, Erkal hopes to complete a post-doc and secure a position at ESA or NASA. She represents the generation who grew up with space being a viable ambition, able to avail of college courses in the area that didn’t require them to go abroad.
Like it or not, private contractors bringing competition, and money, into space exploration, makes more missions and more research possible. But, like explorations of the past, that doesn’t mean vision or idealism need to be sacrificed.
“I’m really excited that we’re building a new space station off the Moon,” says space communicator and self-professed space idealist, Niamh Shaw. “That will make headway in exploring the Moon with NASA and ESA. I’m excited about Artemis and creating a lunar habitat.
“And I’m excited about the opportunities for people to see Earth in its entirety and in sharing that experience with as many people as possible so that we understand we’re in this together, and we’re just one species. That’s very idealistic of me, but I think the more people feel invested in these projects, the more we will really democratise space, the more we’ll ensure that decisions are taken for all of our benefit, not just for the benefit of the few.”