They say there are only two plots: Species goes on a journey, and aliens arrive in town.
UFO sightings aside, humans have been living the first story for decades. The first stage of the trip began in 1957, when Sputnik 1 arced its way around the world, and ended in 1972, when Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan traced his daughter’s initials in moondust and stepped off the lunar surface. The second big stage is upon us now.
A trail marker was laid down in February, when SpaceX equipped a Falcon Heavy rocket with a Tesla Roadster and a data crystal containing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and fired it toward Mars, then landed two of the Falcon’s boosters in synchrony at Cape Canaveral.
At least 2.3m people watched the YouTube livestream — high by internet standards, if far short of the hundreds of millions who tuned in for the first moon landing.
Where the Apollo era was marked by singular, cost-is-no-object technological feats and suffused with political and cultural meaning, the new one has been more diffuse and democratic, fuelled by ever-cheaper launches that have opened space to startups, researchers, and smaller countries. A full-fledged space economy is within reach, and with it, perhaps, a permanent human presence above.
Technology has, in stunning fashion, shown us that we can become a spacefaring species. But those of us who don’t speak vector calculus will be more than gawkers.
We’ll help to determine how we go. The shift to a more accessible, urgent, and potentially profitable era of space exploration means there are decisions to make about ownership, environmental impact, and more.
The groundwork for these debates was laid by the Outer Space Treaty, which went into force in 1967, almost exactly 10 years after Sputnik 1 was launched.
The pact’s full name — the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — captures its spirit.
With its first article, the accord held that space exploration “shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind”.
It also banned weapons of mass destruction in space, forbade national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, and made parties to the treaty responsible for nongovernmental actors based on their soil.
At the time, the pact was seen as a way to head off some of the dystopian nightmares fed by the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.
But it also created an optimistic road map, casting spacefaring as a collective project, led by the great powers yet leaving no one behind.
Signing the document, the famously combative Lyndon Johnson sounded downright un-Johnsonian. “It means that astronaut and cosmonaut will meet someday on the surface of the moon as brothers,” he said, “and not as warriors for competing nationalities or ideologies.”
Of course, Johnson had just dramatically escalated the Vietnam War. Nationalities and ideologies die hard.
In the wake of the Apollo missions, the UN forged an even more idealistic pact, the Moon Treaty of 1979.
Although Armenia became the latest country to accede to it earlier this year, it has mostly foundered, with only 18 parties.
Partly this is because the US backed off, under pressure, according to news reports of the day, from the L5 Society, a 3,600-member collection of space-colony enthusiasts.
A lobbyist for the group testified that the treaty — which cast the moon and its resources as “the common heritage of mankind” — would create “a system of international socialism” and “foreclose the commercial uses of outer space by American private enterprise”.
Since then, US governments have carved out a bigger role for space capitalism. Under Ronald Reagan, Nasa created a commercial programs office. George W Bush released a policy that emphasised private contracting.
Barack Obama signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which held that American citizens could keep anything they brought back from space. (One asteroid-mining executive called this “the single greatest recognition of property rights in history”. Others saw it as potentially contravening the Outer Space Treaty’s prohibition on national appropriation.)
Donald Trump issued a directive establishing a regulatory “one-stop shop” under the US department of commerce for companies seeking to launch satellites, land on asteroids, or build fuel stations on the Saturnian moon of Mimas.
Just how big a space economy could get is impossible to know, though Morgan Stanley released a study last year estimating that revenue from the global industry will increase to at least $1.1 trillion by 2040, more than triple the figure in 2016.
The company ascribes much of that future growth to satellite and rocket services, anticipating products such as orbital internet and even rocket package delivery.
It doesn’t account for the more aspirational possibilities presented by tourism or mining, nor by megaprojects such as Nasa’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a proposed staging ground for lunar and other deep-space missions.
The moment has echoes of the early seafaring and railway eras. Forge the infrastructure, the thinking goes, and ingenuity will take it from there.
The innovations — and abuses — of those eras argue for careful thought as the tracks go down, though. Will governments take care to prevent space-junk proliferation and ozone-layer depletion?
Will it favour the concerns of the wealthy over the interests of the public at large? The megarich are naturally champing to chart humankind’s exploratory course.
Jeff Bezos, the centibillionaire Amazon founder, wants his startup Blue Origin to land on the moon by 2023, in advance of human settlement. Elon Musk’s SpaceX hopes to put people on Mars the following year.
But we are sceptical about who will benefit from space and how far our ventures should go. A survey conducted by Morning Consult for Bloomberg Businessweek found that only 37% of respondents, drawn from a spectrum of backgrounds and political affiliations, thought private companies should play a major role in space exploration.
Some 45% thought they should play a minor role and 18% said they should play no role at all.
Asked whether they thought humans should colonise the moon, those surveyed were almost evenly split; asked who should oversee any colonisation of other planets, 58% said a coalition of global governments.
The results suggest a persistent idealism about space — a belief that it’s a place to which humankind has a common claim (at least until those aliens show up).
But that vision won’t be realised by default. It requires considered decisions: Boring committee discussions and multilateral negotiations informed by public interest, public pressure, and public consent.
The big international space law that is important to know is the Outer Space Treaty (OST). This treaty, ratified by the U.S. in 1967, forms the basis of “space law” as we know it today. https://t.co/udAxMTSjG4— Tiffany C. Li (@tiffanycli) August 10, 2018
Governments are constantly interpreting the Outer Space Treaty, asking themselves how to conform to it and what values it expresses. It’s a good foundation.
In so many realms, from climate change to economic inequality and more, we’ve seen how hard it is to fix the problems we create.
In space, we have a chance to get it right from the start.