The Democratization of Space: New Actors Need New Rules

Dave Baiocchi & William Welser IV. Foreign Affairs. Volume 94, Issue 3. May/Jun 2015.

Starting with the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik in 1957, early space missions were funded exclusively by national governments, and for good reason: going to space was astronomically expensive. Setting up a successful space program meant making major investments in expertise and infrastructure, along with tolerating a great deal of risk-which only the superpowers could do. NASA’s Apollo program, for instance, employed 400,000 people, cost more than $110 billion in today’s dollars, and resulted in the death of three skilled astronauts. Not surprisingly, then, the legal framework that developed as the space race intensified was government-centric. In 1967, the United States, the Soviet Union, and many other countries signed the Outer Space Treaty, which set up a framework for managing activities in space-usually defined as beginning 62 miles above sea level. The treaty established national governments as the parties responsible for governing space, a principle that remains in place today.

Half a century later, however, building a basic satellite is no longer considered rocket science. Thanks to the availability of small, energy efficient computers, innovative manufacturing processes, and new business models for launching rockets, it has become easier than ever to launch a space mission. These advances have opened up space to a crowd of new actors, from developing countries to small start-ups. In other words, a new space race has begun, and in this one, nation-states are not the only participants. Unlike in the first space race, the challenge in this one will not be technical; it will be figuring out how to regulate this welter of new activity.


Computing gets much of the credit for lowering the barriers to entry to space. The modern smartphone is the product of three-plus decades of advances in circuit design and fabrication techniques, and today’s processors pack 1,000 times as many transistors as their predecessors did 20 years ago. The iPhone 6 has as much computational power as a supercomputer from the 1990s did. Smaller also means more energy efficient: a typical cell phone will draw just 25 cents’ worth of electricity in a year, compared with the $36 worth a typical desktop computer does. Small, powerful, and energy-efficient hardware is perfectly suited for satellites, which have a finite amount of electricity (from solar panels) and volume. And thanks to new software-development tools and customizable hardware, anyone with even a modest programming ability can assemble a highly capable computer that could fit into a satellite.

Changes in manufacturing are also making space missions cheaper. The space community’s needs have always been at odds with traditional fabrication techniques. Satellite payloads typically require parts that are durable, extremely delicate, and specialized. And because the companies or governments that buy them rarely build more than two or three of any particular type of satellite, they usually need only a few copies of each part. As a result, space missions have never benefited from the economies of scale offered by assembly lines.

Enter additive manufacturing techniques such as 3-D printing and laser sintering. With a single $35,000 device, designers can quickly build things that, in the past, would have required all the trappings of a modern factory: custom molds, specialized robots, and conveyor belts. Additive manufacturing slashes the cost of producing a handful of parts by a factor of at least ten. Plus, no machine-tooling expertise is required.

Not only has it become much less expensive to construct a satellite; it is also becoming much cheaper to send it into space. Companies such as Orbital atk and SpaceX are working to lower the costs of space launches, by modularizing their vehicles, modernizing their design and fabrication workflows, and vertically integrating their manufacturing processes. These companies are still primarily focused on traditional missions involving heavy payloads, such as launching military satellites and resupplying the International Space Station.

Alongside these giants, a group of more obscure start-ups is focusing on smaller satellites. At least a dozen companies are now developing small rockets designed to carry payloads of less than 1,000 pounds. In the past, these small payloads-made up of such things as science experiments or atmospheric sensors-had to wait for room on a larger, state-sponsored rocket, if they could get a ride at all. As technology has made small payloads more viable and prolific, new companies are looking to fill this niche by developing launch services that cost between $1 million and $10 million, in lieu of the $50 million to $250 million for traditional payloads.

These advancements-in computing, manufacturing, and launching- have made space more accessible than ever before, and entrepreneurs are entering the fray. One characteristic newcomer is Tyvak NanoSatellite Systems, a small company that employs just two dozen engineers and is headquartered in a modest office park in Irvine, California. Its mission: to build satellites so inexpensive and easy to use that practically anyone can buy and launch them. The company has developed a modular system-essentially, an Erector set for satellites- that allows it to configure a satellite for a particular client’s needs, and at a very low cost. While the average satellite in orbit costs around $100 million to build, Tyvak’s start at $45,000. Their clients range from well-funded high school science clubs to nasa.

Given the revolution in accessibility, it’s possible to imagine other nonstate actors having a go at space as well. Nongovernmental organizations may start pursuing missions that undermine governments’ objectives. An activist billionaire wanting to promote transparency could deploy a constellation of satellites to monitor and then tweet the movements of troops worldwide. Criminal syndicates could use satellites to monitor the patterns of law enforcement in order elude capture, or a junta could use them to track rivals after a coup.

Time to Plan

The democratization of space will pose new challenges for policymakers, given that for the most part the existing legal framework has effectively applied to only a handful of states. The Outer Space Treaty outlined four basic concepts: the parties agreed to keep space open for exploration and use by all states, take responsibility for all activities conducted from within their borders (whether carried out by governmental or nongovernmental entities), assume liability for damage caused by their space objects, and cooperate with one another and provide mutual assistance. Nearly all the international space agreements and national space policies in place today are built on those principles.

But much has changed in the nearly 50 years since the treaty was signed. Today, 12 countries host a total of 26 public and private launch facilities, and the pace of technological change is dizzying. The diplomats and lawyers who drafted the treaty likely never envisioned commercial space tourism or crowd-funded satellites. Nor could they have imagined nongovernmental organizations, activists, or a wave of entrepreneurs heading to space. And so they limited their guidelines to what they knew: protecting basic science research and prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons in space. Just as national governments now have to deal with the rise of drones in their airspaces, the international community, operating at a higher altitude, will have to adapt to the proliferation of space missions.

So what are policymakers to do? The first step in the responsible use of any resource is understanding and tracking how that resource is used. For space, this means knowing where everything is located- or, as it’s known in the industry, developing “space situational awareness.” The U.S. Space Surveillance Network, which is part of U.S. Strategic Command, currently tracks more than 17,000 objects in space, from active satellites to old rocket bodies to small pieces of debris. But these objects are not actively tracked 24 hours a day; instead, they are tagged whenever they pass over a network of optical and radar sites on the ground, after which their orbits are entered into a catalog. When satellites suddenly alter their orbits-which they do as part of regular maneuvers or for clandestine purposes-the network has to search for these objects anew and update the catalog with their latest positions.

As the number of players in space increases, situational awareness will become all the more important. For one thing, tracking satellites allows their owners to prevent them from accidentally colliding with one another. Today, this risk is reasonably low, but debris-generating collisions have occurred in the past, and their frequency will only grow with the number of space objects. For another thing, since countries are liable for their own space objects, when a collision does occur, the victim needs to be able to attribute the cause to a particular state-and doing that requires situational awareness.

When it comes to preventing accidental collisions, it is in everyone’s best interest to share all the data. Traditionally, the United States has served as the de facto keeper of a global catalog, but other countries and even private organizations have started maintaining their own. It’s time to centralize all this information in one location, which will require governments to agree to new policies and the use of new technologies that can make it easier to share data.

A second policy challenge has been around since the dawn of the space age, but it is going to get worse. Satellites and space shuttles are often referred to as “dual-use technologies” because they can be used for both peaceful and military purposes. An imaging satellite, for example, can monitor crop production as easily as it can spy on submarine bases. As more private actors enter the space business, it may be more important to distinguish between intended and unintended purposes. A fleet of small camera-equipped satellites may be launched for the purpose of providing more accurate weather data, but once the constellation of satellites enters orbit, operators may discover that it is also capable of monitoring the police. It will be up to the operators whether to declare this use.

The current policies assume that all actors will state their intentions and abide by them, but this is less likely to occur as smaller and more private interests enter the market. These smaller, private entities won’t necessarily recognize strong state ties, and, empowered by new technologies, they may feel free to operate independent of national policies. Indeed, the private sectors in the United States and Europe may present a greater challenge than those in China and Russia, since firms in the latter are so closely aligned with the state.

The final policy challenge concerns nonstate actors. During the four decades when Washington and Moscow had space nearly all to themselves, coordinating and attributing activities there was relatively straightforward. But today, 53 countries are responsible for over 1,300 active satellites; even Ghana has a space agency. Coordinating all their missions is hard enough, but it will only get harder when nonstate actors enter the picture. Although most large commercial missions today are still closely tied to governments, many of the smaller and cheaper missions of tomorrow will be funded by cross-national teams and private interests. It will become harder to both assess the intent of a mission and assign liability to the right party in the event of a mishap, putting at risk important capabilities such as weather forecasting, satellite television, and navigation systems.

The Outer Space Treaty remains a solid foundation for international space policy, one to which governments will have to add new norms. Although the treaty holds countries responsible for the nongovernmental activities that initiate from within their borders, until recently, technical barriers meant that governments never had to worry about the prospect of such activities. As those barriers fall, policymakers will need to establish norms for what to do when, for example, small satellites are covertly moved close to large, state-sponsored satellites in order to spy on them.

The New Space Race

Given the abundance of challenges, policymakers will have to resort to triage. Some problems are overdue for a solution, others are imminent, and still others are merely emerging. The lack of situational awareness should be classified as an urgent problem: when a satellite stops working in orbit, operators need enough information to figure out whether the problem is the result of natural causes (such as a solar storm) or a collision with another man-made object. The rise of nonstate actors is best thought of as an imminent challenge, because even though companies have started developing new services, such as in-orbit refueling and robotic satellite repair, there isn’t yet enough demand to bring these products to market. The advent of large-scale space tourism, by contrast, is still likely a decade or two away.

Regardless of whether governments get to work now on drafting a new framework for space or kick the can down the road, the new space race will continue to unfold. In many ways, this race is likely to follow the path of the software industry. When Apple decided to allow developers to design apps for the iPhone, it unleashed an explosion of unforeseen innovation that has transformed daily life and put more technology in the hands of ordinary people. But because the revolution happened so quickly, it outpaced policymakers. To take just one example of an unforeseen challenge, after an early morning earthquake shook Napa, California, in 2014, the fitness tracker company Jawbone used data collected from its customers to generate maps that showed who woke up. But had people ever agreed to this explicit use of their sleep data? Only now are policymakers starting to wrestle with important questions of security and privacy that such apps have raised.

The space community now finds itself in the same position that software developers did at the beginning of the smartphone age: an exciting new platform is about to open up, but governments have barely started to plan for how it will be used. They need to start thinking about that now-before space fills up.