By: Kenneth Hodgkins

The scope and nature of the space enterprise is evolving rapidly at all levels. While policymakers and the public focus on the latest high-profile achievements, as they rightly should, the time is now to broaden our discourse on space writ-large, to an intellectual and sociology examination of space and society. The inward-looking exercise (space to Earth) is well established but a sustained multi-disciplinary review of what it means to have a society in space is long overdue. The spirit of adventure and discovery is situationally based, it does not embrace the concept of permanency once a mission is achieved. That is to say, through adventure and discovery what is to happen to man at a permanent place off Earth? We have the experience of 2 decades of permanent human presence on the International Space Station. We have learned how astronauts interact at an individual level in an isolated and austere environment, but the human experience is periodic in that crews are regularly replaced. The norms of behavior are legally dictated by the governments operating the ISS based on established astronaut protocols, and national and international law. But the ISS is a research facility tended by humans, not a habitat for societal development in space. The question remains – Should we achieve the ability of long-term or multi-generational human presence around the Earth or on other Celestial bodies, what is the societal construct that allow individuals to interact in a safe, predictable, and nurturing system?

There are no universal requirements for a person to fly to Earth orbit or beyond. Today, people are selected by their governments (based on government driven criteria) to go to space or people just pay for the experience.  But if humankind desires or is destined to exist off Earth will this be solely a function dictated by one or more governments as to who will go, where, when, how and under what conditions for human interaction?

An inward examination of the space enterprise recognizes that space systems are vital to sustainability, strategic stability, economic growth, scientific discovery, and the betterment of the human condition. Policymakers benefit enormously from a sustained and focused multidisciplinary examination of the current state-of-affairs in space law and policy, and the ways and means for to mold the future of space utilization. While the body of international space law and practice instruments have been established and serve as a roadmap for national security, civil and commercial space activities, much work needs to be done at the national level to give effect to the implementation of obligations under the UN space treaties. This is where we stand.

But non-government actors need a global framework that is transparent, level, and predictable. This can only happen with a bottom-up approach that relies on the advice and experience of civil society. The rule of law in space must be flexible, inclusive, and permissive for the next generation of space adventurers to excel. Countries and companies transitioning towards the new global space economy will need an unbiased and thoughtful institution that looks at the totality of the challenges ahead.

The outward examination of space and society demands the same requirements but in a different realm – astrosociology. Civil society must be at the center of creating a sustained process whereby national and international policymakers are working from an informed body of knowledge that is multi-disciplinary at all stages. Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty the exploration of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries. Hence, the conditions for activities are not to be dictated solely by states that have the ability to leave Earth. Now that governments and commercial entities are looking to a sustained human presence on the Moon and Mars and in Earth orbit now is the time to study the norms that would be applied for a societal order that would help make this a reality.

The issues at hand are readily known and deserve further elaboration through a multi-disciplinary process. Civil society involvement is crucial to set the path from Earth to the outer reaches of the galaxy. Governments cannot be expected to tackle this on their own. The policymaking apparatus historically is many steps behind technological and societal advancements so space ventures cannot wait for governments to get organized in this regard. There are various non-governmental scientific and research organizations that could be utilized but that would require them to make structural changes. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is an effective body for the promotion of international space cooperation but it a governmental body where civil society is only an observer. The challenge is to organize a reliable and objective platform for civil society to gather on a regular basis to study the issues of astrosociology and make recommendations for moving forward.

Many will argue that living as a society in space will never happen or is so far in the future that it is premature to have this debate. This is not reflecting reality. No one has a crystal ball to predict what may or may or may not happen in space. The point is that we should have the foresight to take what we know and engage now as an important contribution of civil society to the future space enterprise.