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The Prospects of Private Space Stations

Illustrations © James Vaughan, and used by permission. More of his work can be found here: http://www.jamesvaughanphoto.com/

By James Snedden, Kassandra Maduzia, Mohammad Ahmadi, and Dr. Justin Bullock

 

ABSTRACT

Private space sector expansion will likely result in a proliferation of space stations, test the viability of current legal controls, and present new questions for management and enforcement issues that will arise. The issues that space stations bring into focus are important to the future endeavors of spacefaring nations especially in terms of space power projection. This should be a strategic issue of consideration by U.S. national security leaders especially U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command which would share some responsibility for security concerns, civilian safety, and prevent of conflict. While planning and the creation of mechanisms to prevent or redress some of the more dangerous potentials is necessary, vigilance toward activities within the private sector will be of similar importance. This paper analyzes space sector trends, examines relevant international agreements, and posits future considerations on the role of space-based militaries as managers and enforcers of private sector activity. Nations must agree to an international framework for the management of space before expansion begins in full. While the Outer Space Treaty (OST) prohibits aggressive action, the penalties are primarily financial and reputational. As space development grows and the benefits to conflict increase, current financial and reputational penalties will no longer serve as sufficient deterrents. Given the current international environment, and due to the trends of privatization and commercialization, this paper focuses on the creation of private space stations by posing the question: what will happen when space stations become a way of life? The case of private space stations highlights important governance questions relating to sovereignty, management, and enforcement. This case is presented to implore the creation of an international framework now – before manned space exploration becomes common place.

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Space, once dominated solely by national governments, is increasingly influenced by commercial sector actors. Many federal governments contract space technological development and logistical support from private businesses through public/private partnerships (PPPs)[1] with The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) transferring operations to the commercial sector. For example, in the case of the satellite industry, an industry dominated by PPPs – 2019 set a record for most satellites launched at 386 commercial satellites launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO.)[2] In addition, private companies have recently begun sending people into space.[3] If this trend continues, private companies will engage in more complex missions, including joint military operations, and ever-expanding goals in the coming years and decades. Different actors within both the private and public sectors will vie to accomplish these goals further increasing the complexity of space development. This paper argues that space station proliferation will both occur and be particularly complex due to needed changes in conceptualizations of sovereignty, management, and enforcement. The focus of the paper is on the complexities of space station existence, interaction with the public sphere, and ramifications of government enforcement. In particular, it will be important to understand how government authorities will serve as managers and enforcers of private sector activity in space. This should be a strategic issue of consideration by the United States government – in particular, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) and U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM).

Space station proliferation will be a critical factor for expansion and how governance operates in LEO and outwards into space. Legal restriction for public and private action in space are currently loosely defined with limited enforcement mechanisms. Space station proliferation will fundamentally alter engagement in space, governance, territorial jurisdiction, national sovereignty, military involvement, and the overall security environment. Since private space stations (PSS) will bring about new modes and nodes of interaction between groups, an expansive governance framework is necessary before widescale extra-orbital engagement begins in full, to develop rules, regulations, and norms of enforcement. The following section discusses the comparative links of how future large-scale such as space stations resemble those of more profitable ones such as satellites.

The Privatization and Proliferation Trend

First, it is important to define potential issues by demonstrating both the likelihood of increased private engagement in space and proliferation of space stations. It is likely that the private sector will continue taking on a greater role in space development.[4] It is not that governments can no longer develop space. They have been for over half a century and will continue to do so as technology develops. It is a matter of financial return.

The International Space Station (ISS) is a model for demonstrating the expense of a single space station. NASA’s original projections were a mere 17.4 billion.[5] However, NASA alone has spent around $75 billion on the ISS with $3-4 billion in annual maintenance fees.[6] Including cost sharing among participating nations, the ISS cost around $128 billion to build over ten years.[7] Yearly servicing costs NASA approximately $3.4 billion; transportation costs around $50-65 million per flight.

If space engagement is financially exorbitant; how can a market develop, and future investments occur? So far, there is an economic incentive for private industries to develop space. For example, companies make a high return in the satellite communication market. Satellite proliferation occurs because return outweighs investment accounting for $277 billion global revenue in 2018.[8] This competition is self-acceleratory; it reduces costs due to technological improvements and innovations, with cost effectiveness increasing competition. Once the high market entry barriers are disrupted through increased interest and competition, as in the case of satellite launch, there is no reason not to expect a similar market response for space stations. And, unlike satellites, these stations will often host humans, and thus present new challenges for management of behavior and enforcement of rules on these stations.

Space stations will be necessary for many economic drivers of advanced space engagement to function. Since the first space station launched in 1971[9], space stations have been hubs for scientific research and diplomacy. According to NASA, the current aim of space stations is to “…extend a permanent human presence to the outer planets (moon outposts) and to nearby star systems, additional orbiting space infrastructure; great advances in propulsion systems and other technology will be required.”[10] The United States already implemented the Artemis program, a project to allow for long-term habitation of the moon, which deems lunar orbital space stations necessary to success.[11] Space stations will be integral for any long-term project outside of the terrestrial sphere. Hence, the proliferation of space stations, by both the public and private sectors, will likely be the central point of expansion and exploration.

NASA has undertaken steps to ease entry of the private sector into space station development. While there have been 11 total space stations, the only operational space station is the ISS.[12] However, it will not remain the only space station; China is half done with one and India has plans for another.[13] The United States plans to shift the ISS from a public to hybrid private/public installation, demonstrating NASA’s recognition of the potential space economy by opening up the ISS to private development to help facilitate this economy. Development of private modules, or add-on sections, is underway.[14] The first of these modules is designed to detach from the ISS, when the ISS is deorbited, and to continue on as its own installation.[15] Space tourism, mining, habitat construction, exploration, and research and development revenue streams will attract the private sector.

Current International Agreements

A PSS must be built in accordance with domestic law and should be done consistent with international regulations to avoid potential conflicts. The United States is party to four United Nations (UN) space-related treaties: 1) the Outer Space Treaty (OST) 2) the Registration Convention, 3) the Liability Convention, and 4) the Return and Rescue Agreement.

Most legal structures are based on precedent or compared to existing structures. Comparing space to its terrestrial bound analogues provides an understanding of the needed legal authorities in space. Mare liberum, or “free sea,” also known as international waters, along the Central Artic Ocean, is a close analogue.[16] They are “shared spaces” where they do not overlap with Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) or contiguous zones which take legal precedence.[17] Shared spaces are considered a common heritage of mankind with no one nation having sole right of sovereignty.[18] The UN Convention on the High Seas (UNCLOS) is an international agreement to “balance territorial sovereignty, use of resources, freedom of the high seas, and notions of shared governance.”[19] It provides governance, principles of conduct, and resolution of issues demonstrating links between shared space and treaties to determine governance, access, and exploitation. While current U.S. policy leans towards rejecting the notion of space as a shared space, it is beholden to the OST.[20] The OST defines space is similar to these analogues in that it is beyond the legal and political jurisdictions of any one nation with the four space treaties mirroring these sentiments.[21]

The OST, foundation for international space law, is accepted by most of the international community, including the United States, China, Russia, and the United Kingdom.[22] It declares, among other things, that outer space is free for exploration and use by all states, outer space is not subject to the jurisdiction of any country, and states party to the treaty bear the responsibility for outer space activities and retain jurisdiction and control over objects launched into the space.[23] Based on the OST, territory cannot be claimed by a nation state.[24] Activities of non-government entities, such as PSSs, require authorization and continued supervision of their host state.[25] Though PSSs are not explicitly mentioned, Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty states that “the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space…shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State.” Further, Article VII states, “…each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage…” Therefore, host nations bear responsibility and liability for actions in space. PSSs will likely follow this model. For example, PSS are likely forbidden to test weapons of mass destruction; the PSS owner’s nation would be held accountable.[26] The Artemis accords create the notion of a “safety zone,” an area around an installation defined as “the area in which nominal operations of a relevant activity or an anomalous event could reasonably cause harmful interference.”[27] Safety zones are essentially an area of management and responsibility. PSSs, too, will likely be responsible for their immediate area. These responsibilities under the OST seemingly require robust accountability and enforcement mechanisms to be maintained by the PSS’s host nation. This supports that the need for the United States to have an enforcement agency that maintains agreed upon mechanisms by which enforcement can be enacted.

Private Space Station Considerations

Space stations as waypoints

In an era of strategic competition, “Space is the new economic center of gravity.”[28] Economic, military, and scientific development of space will require vast resources to expand and protect space infrastructure that is vital to mission fulfillment, international markets, and global security.[29] There are three major practical reasons why space stations will be core infrastructure in the development of space. First, avoiding gravity fields is always ideal. Interacting with celestial bodies is difficult for the same reason that rocketry on Earth is difficult; gravity is hard to deal with and consumes large amounts of energy. A zero-g waypoint will be necessary for resupply, maintenance, refueling, maintaining an enforcement presence, and construction especially for any long-term engagement.

Second, there are not many celestial bodies suitable for development. Space stations will need to exist near the majority of major celestial bodies as these bodies cannot be made habitable. For example, Venus is likely uninhabitable due to its high atmospheric pressure (between 20 and 100 times that of earth) and high surface temperature (almost 500 degrees Celsius.) It also lacks a rocky moon to develop.[30] Therefore, any long-term frequent engagement with celestial bodies like Venus will require a base of operations that is man-made.

Third, shipping goods and travel will often not require landing on celestial bodies. For a vehicle that is on route to another location, stopping to resupply without landing will allow actors to sidestep traffic coordination problems and reduce the costs of travel. Having to reenter a gravity field (or atmosphere) unnecessarily is fuel inefficient, increases risk, and degrades vehicular components. Space stations make space travel safer and affordable. This is similar to the expansion of the United States across North America with trading posts being created in a chain from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans that then acted as hubs for exploration and settlement of land.

Space stations in resource exploitation

Resource exploitation will play a major role in driving space development. Mining water and minerals will be a major economic incentive for space engagement. Water is ubiquitous in the solar system and present in almost every major and minor celestial body as well as abundant in the asteroid belt.[31] With available terrestrial water decreasing via increasing demand,[32] alternative water sources will likely be a focus of future mining operations. Metals and other elements are similarly common throughout the solar system and will likely be used to supplement depleting terrestrial sources with private companies already initiating ventures.[33] The United States has already passed legislation recognizing rights of space mining.[34] The economic value of asteroids and their host of elements and fresh water is, currently, incalculable, but known to be considerable.[35] These resources, currently unbound to government territory, will certainly draw the attention and exploitation of the public and private sectors.

Mined extraterrestrial resources will need to be refined. It would be grossly inefficient and costly to transport raw material to a refinery on a terrestrial surface for refining. Transporting material to refineries on celestial bodies is subject to the problems listed above regarding gravity wells. Remaining in zero-g would reduce costs associated with refining. Therefore, refineries, and stations to support their operators and workers, will likely be built in space. Mining stations will streamline mineral exploitation when considering fuel, time, cost, equipment degradation, and traffic coordination.

Internal management of space stations

With private space station proliferation likely, these stations will have their own sets of internal rules and procedures. However, each installation’s rules are beholden to national laws of the management’s host nation. In accordance with the Liability Convention and the OST, an American owned PSS would be held accountable to the U.S. government while an Australian PSS would be held accountable to Australia.[36] However, certain practices that are illegal within the borders of one nation could theoretically be acceptable within the confines of another station if its host country allows it. With few laws directly affecting a station via the current international framework, it seems inevitable that controversial activities will occur on these stations. These activities could include exploitation of minors, unregulated human experimentation, and contraband trafficking. Depending upon the strategic significance of a station, some of these laws, or lack thereof, could become points of contention between nations.

Policymakers must codify mechanisms to redress issues. Oversight and management of space stations will not necessarily be assigned to individuals. Artificial Intelligence (AI) may control many space station functions, especially if AI research develops significantly.[37] Joint AI and human managed stations will require careful consideration of who or what is in control of which tasks and systems.[38] Space stations will likely develop as human-AI coupled stations before the full automation occurs. This will present challenges of who or what controls which tasks and systems for identifying what roles AI and humans should play in management.[39] It may be that in some cases, liability in an AI managed station will be accepted by the owner of the AI, and other cases where the AI itself may be liable.

Geopolitical and supply chain ramifications

On Earth, access to resource caches is a major factor in conflict, diplomacy, and alliance building. Nations that are rich in specific resources use their resources to shape the international environment and achieve national goals. Nations that hold resources but are unable to exploit them are subject to influence by foreign powers. However, this rationale changes for several reasons when applied to space.

The first is that space is vast; it is infeasible for a nation or group to control or “lay claim” to all of it. Earth is relatively small, yet nations have significant challenges maintaining control of territory and preventing foreign interlopers and influence. In space this problem is magnified due to the distance between important locations. Furthermore, while airspace and subterranean management is necessary on Earth, presence in these areas is difficult because of our atmosphere and gravity well. However, in space, “vertical” positioning takes on the same level of omnipresence as lateral positioning, increasing the amount of attention territory to manage. Therefore, the way that we perceive territory will change, legal enforcement will change, and legal evasion will change in complex ways.

Second, in space there are resources that are rare or tightly restricted here on Earth. Upon successful exploitation, the global supply chain will alter in ways that will drastically affect nation states’ influence. Rare earth elements provide a helpful example. As of 2018, China controls 71% of the supply-chain of these resources.[40] Rare earth elements (REEs) are a necessary component of all advanced technology; without access a country cannot compete on the world stage with other advanced nations. Were a private enterprise to acquire access to large quantities of these resources in space, both the geopolitical balance and global supply chain will shift in unforeseeable ways. In this case China would lose a significant amount of its global influence and economic growth as nations and private entities now have another REE supply option. Given that REEs are not actually rare, and that most of the costs of REEs are in environmental protection, which is not an issue in space, China will lose its quasi-monopoly once other nations and private entities begin accessing the REE deposits in space which are unbound to national territory. China’s response to this could embroil multiple state and non-state actors into conflict.

Depending on the importance of the resource, a private entity may become a security threat on par with a nation. For example, Uranium 235 (U-235) is the isotope used for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. It exists naturally in low concentrations on earth making its scarcity a roadblock to nuclear technology. Nations have to artificially alter other types of Uranium to make the quantities of U-235 necessary for nuclear fission. How will the geopolitical landscape cope if private entities begin exploitation of asteroids with large quantities of uranium and sell it to hostile actors? It is a difficult scenario for the current international hierarchal structure to deal with. As the responsible combatant command, SPACECOM would likely task assigned USSF Guardians with responsibility for security concerns of this nature and will be required to focus not only terrestrial presence, but also intelligence gathering and sharing with allies. While, planning and the creation of mechanisms to prevent or redress some of the more dangerous potentials is necessary, vigilance towards activities within the private sector will be of similar importance.

Interstation conduct and conflict

Station-to-station and station-to-nation interaction will increase as the number of space stations proliferate. Not all interactions will be friendly. Circumstances will arise where one or both parties suffer resource loss, equipment loss, and loss of human life. There are, as of yet, few rules for accountability, liability, or interaction between space stations. The OST does have some language regarding host nation responsibility, but as mentioned, the rules are written in less than definitive language. With each private station having their own rules and being held responsible by a different nation, each inter-station interaction will be a unique case of procedure and form. The ISS is a shared station and agreements have been made between all parties involved for conflict resolution between astronauts beholden to different laws. This paradigm would not apply to different stations wholly owned by actors under the jurisdiction of different nations. What level of procedure (treaty, contract, agreement, territorial law, etc.) will nation states need to engage private entities at? Defining the level of procedure is a critical part in planning for future inter-station engagement. The U.S. space forces will be tasked with managing security aspects of inter-station conflict that cannot be readily resolved through diplomacy or negotiation. It will have to leverage American preponderance of power and technology to successfully limit or mitigate the fallout from such conflict.

Enforcement

Actors will break the rules regardless of what international framework for operation in space develops. Assuming that framework is in place by the time space stations become common, the question of enforcement arises. This becomes an issue of sovereignty, rights, and jurisdiction. There are no procedures in place to carry out legal redress on a station. All action must wait until the astronaut returns to Earth. This will be ineffective when people begin spending longer periods in space and issues that require immediate resolution arise. This may be a place where having stationed military presence could be useful as highly specialized agents could assist in enforcement of rules of behavior. Another concern is the type of individual in space. Historically, stations are federal entities which host qualified and vetted individuals which have deep respect for both their nation of origin and international partners. As PSSs spread, the process for choosing space-goers will not be as rigid because it will be driven by market demand and staffing requirements. This creates novel challenges for enforcement of good governance both on and between stations. For example, performing illegal mining or theft of property in one area and laundering it at another space station into a legitimate resource may be tactic. Jurisdiction agreements must be created and agreed upon before the “gold rush” to space intensifies.

Space stations will present new challenges for distance governing. As the United States proved in 1776, distance governing is difficult as there is a sense of division between people in the new territory and those remaining in the homeland.[41] Governance at a distance creates logistical issues and increased costs during a terrestrial split; adding the difficulties of space magnifies these challenges. In cases where two or more nations claim the same area as national territory, significant political tension ensues.[42] However, each nation’s claims are clearly defined as the distance between owned or disputed territory does not change. Simply put, Washington D.C. is always 3,662 miles from London. In space, stations will be orbital paths relative to the sun meaning the concept of territorial distance changes as installations are constantly in motion with changing distances. At one point, an English PSS may be millions of miles from other stations but have an orbital path that puts it a few thousand miles from an Australian PSS some months later. If the “region of responsibility” of a space station is based on a radius around it, regional jurisdiction may temporarily overlap.

To prepare for the complications that may arise in this, and other scenarios, SPACECOM’s area of responsibility is, “equal to or greater than 100 kilometers above mean…sea level,” or anywhere in space.[43] Forces from USSF and the other Services assigned to SPACECOM will act as a strategic deterrent in preventing attacks against U.S. and allied PSSs, as well as maintain security in both regions of responsibility and empty space. This gives rise to questions of enforcement mechanics in the space near, or between, stations. Will stations require military presence or a police force? Will the USSF be both a military presence and police force, or will it only fulfill one of these roles? How are interstellar vehicles protected from, or monitored for, illegal or dangerous activity? Who has jurisdiction if regions of responsibility overlap? Creating a framework of operations early is imperative for safe and peaceful development before casualties of exploration create the necessary push for solutions.

 

Conclusion 

To answer the question as to the prospects of private space stations, they are likely, they are complicated, and early preparation is key. It will be important to get other nations to agree to an international framework for the management of space. U.S. Space Command, in conjunction with the U.S. Space Force, will have protocols in place for conflict management but will be working from a theoretical standpoint early in the process. These protocols may be focused on international conflict, but will have to include private entity management, as the USSF will likely be forced to take on police as well as military roles. The stakes of space engagement have yet to fully develop; it is easier to get countries to agree to anything that does not hold immediate relevance to their nation’s development of power. However, as time passes and space becomes more critical to national power development, countries will be less likely to agree to a framework that may limit or penalize them, especially when national security is perceived to be at risk. As such, space station proliferation will be a major point of contention between nations and private entities. Space station necessity for the development of celestial bodies combined with the private sector’s financial incentives to invest into new areas virtually guarantees PSS’s to be part of humanity’s future. With no alternative options for living outside the terrestrial sphere, space stations will likely become humanity’s first step into true space habitation; having a method to sustain long-term missions into space is a must to continue space exploration. Strategic competition will create obstacles in the maintenance of the international hierarchy in space. Enforcement of agreements and rules will become more difficult. It is necessary to begin drafting plans, institutions, and a comprehensive legal framework before the stakes in this arena become of greater importance.

James Snedden recently completed an MA in National Security and Diplomacy at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. Kassandra Maduzia recently graduated with an MA in Public Service and Administration at the Texas A&M University Bush School of Government and Public Service. Mohammad Ahmadi is a Fulbright Scholar and is currently a doctoral fellow and policy research assistant at Pardee Rand Graduate School and RAND respectively. Dr. Justin Bullock is an Independent Researcher. This paper represents solely the authors’ views and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any Department or Agency of the U.S. Government.

NOTES

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