What John Rawls can teach us about governance in outer space

by Douglas Ligor and Luke J. Matthews 8 minutes Reading

Outer space is becoming ever more dangerous and moreOvercrowded, Contested, and Competitive“than at any point in history. In 1976, for example, only about 750 satellites were in orbit around the earth, Till January 5 this year, were 12,480, with tens of thousands more expected in the coming years. SpaceX alone has been licensed to launch 12,000 more Starlink satellites over the next five years as part of its megaconstellation efforts. Other companies and countries are following suit: Amazon 3,000. planning to launch more than Satellite, Britain’s OneWeb plans around 100,000 . is to launchAnd China around 13,000. planning to launch, In 2013, there were approx. About 21,000 pieces of softball or larger diameter, and approximately 500,000 pieces at least the size of a marble; In 2022, Those numbers have grown to 36,500 and 1 million, respectively., Any debris in space can be incredibly dangerous: while a wrench dropped by a sailor sinks harmlessly into the ocean floor, a wrench dropped into space The projectile turns at 7,000 meters per second Capable of destroying a satellite or space station.

Unsurprisingly, near-miss collisions are on the rise: not only did a recent Russian anti-satellite test create debris that threatened the lives of astronauts on the International Space Station, it has been speculated that orbiting objects will cause a specific satellite operator (with 50 satellites) to receive Up to 300 close-call alerts in a week, With 4,852 active satellites, i.e. approximately 29,000 collision alerts per week, of which hundreds are likely to result in the operator having to perform collision avoidance maneuvers. Given the projected increase in numbers, the collision problem is about to get worse.

Equally related, terrestrial conflicts such as the war in Ukraine automatically have a space conflict component. Russia is suspected of being involved in a Viasat satellites cyber hacking attack In an attempt to shut down Internet services to disrupt communications in Ukraine at the start of the conflict. Without more defined and enforceable rules of war regarding space and space assets, the risk of catastrophic conflict in space increases significantly.

Currently, there are no international binding regulations that would address these growing threats. In fact, the international community has not been able to agree to any The new binding, widely supported rules for space since 1976, a time when space was dominated by only two powers—the US and the USSR—and the biggest concern was launching nuclear weapons beyond the stratosphere.

Such a practical approach to space regulation has yielded some benefits. Primarily, it has helped enable the era of commercial space enterprise and investment, But this approach, or lack thereof, has also led to some pretty sinister holes. For example, there is no consensus on the definitions of key treaty terms such as “outer space,” “debris,” “space object,” “interference,” and “contamination,” which allow nations to claim that destructive anti-satellite tests, which make thousands Pieces of hazardous debris, in fact, do not violate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (OST), as they do not technically create “interference” or “contamination”.

All this suggests that it may be time to consider new rules for this new space age. But how to regulate in a space like space can be tricky. A potentially useful approach to governance might be to adopt a rule-making thought strategy famous in political philosophy, known as “”.veil of ignorance,

John Rawls’ Grand Thought Experiment

Philosopher John Rawls first introduced the idea of ​​the veil in 1971. In Rawls’ thought experiment, he proposed that, for society to make proper rules, everyone must first agree to the rules, before knowing how the rules would apply to them. Rawls was envisioning wearing a veil in an earthly society. His belief was that if you didn’t know whether you would be a black, white, or brown person, female or male, or if you would be rich or poor until the rules were made, the rules would all agree on being more equitable for all. will end.

There are some obvious limitations to Rawls’ thought tool. It’s hard to imagine, or to forget, one’s race or gender or socioeconomic status – our cognitions are very steeped in our life experience. The best time to make rules for society, it turns out, is while society is still living under a veil of ignorance: It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to do here on Earth; But remarkably useful and relevant to space, both in the past and today.

During those early space treaties, members of the United Nations were engaged in a rule-making process, which Rawls would have admired, articulated many of the guiding principles prior to the existence of applicable technical terms. For example, the Outer Space Treaty prohibited spacecraft from contaminating potentially habitable extra-terrestrial environments unless science had any evidence that such environments existed beyond Earth. first compliance This segment coincided with what happened in 2017, when NASA destroyed its Cassini space probe after discovering that Saturn’s moon Enceladus contained a warm saline ocean – a potential home for living organisms.

Just as the drafters of the treaty knew little about whether an environment suitable for life beyond Earth could be discovered, they did not know whether the future of space would be in terms of militarization or the occupation of orbits and celestial bodies. What can it look like? And yet, he formulated doctrines that prohibited nuclear weapons from being placed in orbit around Earth, and they restricted the possibility of imperial or colonial claims to orbits or celestial bodies. The brilliance of making these rules before the rules are known is that, had the rules been drafted after the fact, the calculations by the nations that made the rules and agreed would have been quite different.

Imagine a baseball game in which teams decide what a home run is until a batsman hits the ball into a foul pole—at which point, one way or another, is reasonably determined. It’s too late to do. Much rides on the decisions of each team. Unless the rule was decided in advance – behind Rawls’ veil – teams that decide on the rule after the fact will automatically be biased towards creating a rule that benefits them. Had Cassini arrived at Enceladus in 1966 instead of 2017, or if commercial mining of the Moon would have been possible in 1966, the diplomats who drafted the Outer Space Treaty would have been biased towards similar circumstances—either from the fact that a nation’s The probe was about to crash on an already watery Moon, or one of their commercial miners had already discovered platinum on the Moon.

time is of the essence

The current exploration of space presents an unusual situation, in that in many ways we are still behind the veil of ignorance. We still don’t know who will bear the burden of cleaning up our space debris, or which country or company will be the first to capitalize on mining extraterrestrial resources. In the case of space debris, possible solutions would apply a liability or tax regime for debris cleanup in proportion to the debris produced in the future. Countries will not agree to a cleanup proportional to the debris production of the past (it’s not behind the Rawlsian veil), but with so much active entrepreneurship in space, countries don’t know who will be the biggest debris producers going forward. . This creates an opportunity, like in a baseball game, to make fair rules—in this case burden-sharing—before the game begins.

A similar logic applies for resource extraction in space (space mining). Mining asteroids is likely to result in only a few winners because The number of near-Earth asteroids with valuable minerals is limited., Who will win in asteroid mining is unknown, which means we are behind the Rawlsian veil, which makes it the perfect time to develop laws on how asteroid resources should be used fairly. By removing the curtain, we can make a rule regarding profit sharing. For developing countries, they will have an economic share in what is mined on the Moon or on an asteroid (minus the cost of first movers to find and remove); For well-resourced states and actors, it provides limited rights to the mining sector (without allegations of appropriation in violation of the OST), predictable cost structures, and the ability to avoid both resource races and potential conflicts. Unilateral sector and resource appropriation.

Enforcing such laws would require an international mechanism that would require countries to develop their own culturally appropriate, country rules. There is a precedent for this type of mechanism: the United Nations’ International Seabed Authority (ISA) was created to license, regulate and fairly distribute the benefits of deep-sea mining in international waters, which is considered to be a global common. Space is also a global commons, and a Rawlsian approach to resource extraction may result in the creation of an ISA-like institution for space mining.

The many problems in space presently present a rare and wonderful opportunity for the international community to formulate fair rules. But time is of the essence: once a company has reached the moon or Asteroids to set up a mining officeRation, or an abandoned space object collided with a man-inhabited space station and destroyed, would be too late to leave the veil: the miner’s game would likely have too much skin, and the astronauts on the space station would likely to be dead.

It is still possible for rule makers to operate “behind the veil”, completely unaware of the situation that when they lift the veil, the rules will go into effect. Unaware of the status and power he would have if he lifted the veil, Rawls believes he would turn to rules that maximize fairness and justice for all.

Douglas Ligor is a senior behavioral/social scientist at the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation and a member of RAND’s Enterprise Space Initiative. Luke J. Matthews is a Senior Behavioral/Social Scientist at RAND.

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