Every nation needs a space agency

Every nation needs a space agency

Last month’s dramatic test launch and explosion of SpaceX’s uncrewed Starship vehicle highlighted the opportunities — and risks — of commercial space flight. A new breed of space company is shaping the space environment and life on Earth. In the past decade, the investment of some US$60 billion by venture firms and space-enthusiast billionaires has yielded more than 500 space start-ups. The number of functioning satellites in orbit has ballooned from around 1,000 in 2013 to more than 7,000 today. People have reached space on commercial flights for the first time.

The activities of commercial companies offer new capabilities that could improve quality of life, safety, sustainability, science and security for billions around the world. But they also pose environmental and operational risks, ranging from satellite collisions to light pollution to reliance on high-risk ventures that could go out of business. Regulatory and governance structures need to evolve quickly to keep up.

Throughout my career, I’ve tracked the space economy, developed tools to measure trends and models to predict outcomes, and advised on government strategy. As an analyst focusing on the space ecosystem, particularly the interplay between the commercial, civil and national-security sectors, I can say that, compared with previous waves of commercial space activity, we are seeing a tsunami today. The institutions put in place to deal with established aerospace contractors and satellite operators, which are typically large and government-focused, don’t work for today’s challenges.

Major space-faring nations — those with launch capability, sizeable government space budgets and significant space industries — are already implementing new ways of managing space activities nationally and globally. Nations without major space programmes will be affected by these changes, and need to consider how to avoid losing out.

My view is that every country should consider establishing its own space agency to protect its interests and meet national objectives in this period of rapid change.

Almost every nation is already a regular consumer of some level of space capability, mostly satellite services. Satellites are integral to global telecommunications, carrying television and Internet traffic. Precision timing, used by financial systems and energy grids, is based on satellite signals. Satellite observations drive forecasting models that predict both daily weather and life-threatening events such as hurricanes. Transportation infrastructure, land management and a host of industries, including agriculture, depend on satellite imagery.

National-security agencies in the United States and elsewhere are expanding their long-standing cooperation with commercial space firms to access satellite hardware and acquire intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance imagery and analytics. Nations are benefiting from technology transfer from space programmes, gaining access to advanced computing and products such as microelectronics, along with developments in areas such as food safety. They are also sharing in insights gained from space exploration.

In an era of commercial space exploration, a nation that has not previously viewed itself as a space actor might find that it has a long-term future interest in the sector. This might be in planetary resources, for example, because of a strong mining industry, or in space exploration, if it can acquire access to commercial launch vehicles and space stations. It might want to influence competitive policies in other nations seeking to attract businesses from abroad. Now is the time for nations to protect their future interests by joining the discussions and negotiations on the global stage.

Established international structures are changing, and nations risk losing out if they are not part of the conversation. Increased commercial space activity is leading to new governance in areas such as the management of space traffic (including questions about who is responsible and liable for collisions); preventing the accumulation of orbital debris; licensing satellite services; and managing the competing uses of the electromagnetic spectrum. The role of the International Telecommunications Union, which has long managed orbital access rights and spectrum management, is under reconsideration as satellites expand drastically into new orbits. Countries and organizations of the United Nations have proposed rules for responsible space actors. A number of nations have signed NASA’s Artemis Accords, which seek to establish a shared vision to enhance the governance of civil exploration and the use of outer space.

In this context, a dedicated public space agency can improve a nation’s standing and help it to achieve its objectives. Even if a nation’s space activities are minimal and its agency small, the organizational construct could have value. For example, the head of a space agency might have access that a lower-level space lead in a larger agency (say, a telecommunications regulator) might not, even if the budgets and authorities of the two are roughly the same.

Different nations will have different objectives: to expand their space presence, build space alliances, take fuller advantage of commercial products and services, or protect national rights and equities. In this period of rapid change, in which space-based activities will become increasingly important to every country, national space agencies will help nations to achieve equitable treatment and meet their goals in space.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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