A version of this article appears in the July 21 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

For the first several decades of human space activity, the economically and militarily valuable region of near-Earth orbit seemed like an infinite resource. But in the 21st century, the rapid increase in countries, companies and even private individuals active in space has made us realize how finite this region actually is, raising risks of collisions and conflict. In short, the space community today faces a “collective action” problem—too many people using a shared resource without adequate and enforceable rules. Will safe access to near-Earth space be put into jeopardy?

Fortunately, recent national actions (China’s 2007 anti-satellite test) and accidents (the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos crash) have heightened awareness of certain emerging threats and spurred international cooperation. Countries, companies and the public are collaborating as never before. Space also is transparent, making it an ideal candidate for community-based mitigations of commercial, military and civil risks. But more needs to be done—and soon.

In commercial space, we are on the cusp of -exciting developments in satellite broadband for underserved users, cheap cubesats, private human spaceflight and even asteroid-mining. This may be the takeoff point for space commerce that has long been predicted. Coming changes in U.S. International Traffic in Arms (ITAR) regulations bode well for improving the competitiveness of U.S. industry. But there are emerging problems: crowding of the radio-frequency spectrum; a shortage of geostationary orbital slots; inadequate space-traffic control and situational awareness; lack of common regulations for cubesats, which may soon clutter low Earth orbit; and the absence of guidelines for managing resource development on asteroids and the Moon.

Sustainable development will require clearer rules, more transparency and greater engagement with international partners to create common standards for licensing of human spaceflight, registering and identifying cubesats, deorbiting low-Earth-orbit spacecraft sooner than current 25-year guidelines and allocating mining claims to ensure responsible management. 

In military space, there are growing tensions as regional adversaries extend their rivalries into orbit. Some countries such as China are reported to be developing counterspace weapons. Action-reaction cycles in East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe can easily be foreseen. The U.S. is moving forward (albeit slowly) to improve cooperation on verification through bilateral space situational awareness agreements and the construction of a new, more capable Space Fence to track objects in space. But more rapid action with foreign governments to prohibit kinetic weapons tests above 150 mi., where debris poses a lasting hazard, would make good sense and should be supported by industry, the scientific community and the interested public.

In civil space, a recent National Research Council report cautioned that NASA is not on a trajectory toward sustainable exploration beyond low Earth orbit without steady yearly budget increases. Since Congress shows no signs of such boosts, NASA will need to become more engaged with international partners. Unfortunately, NASA’s current plan calls for an unpopular mission to an asteroid. Instead, the U.S. would be well served to revive the consultative process initiated under the Constellation program, but this time do the hard work of developing real burden-sharing with U.S. allies and friends. This could start under the Obama administration with robotic missions, then ramp up to establishment of a permanent human-tended base structure and technology-development incubator under the next president. Absent such a U.S.-led effort, another country is likely to take on this leadership role, bringing its own principles to bear in lunar governance. 

In the face of emerging challenges, it is easy to fall back on isolationism, nationalism and fear-mongering. But such strategies are more likely to worsen the space environment and harm long-term U.S. interests in space’s economic development. The good news is that the 21st century—compared to even the late 20th century—is one of increased economic interdependence and vastly expanded communications. But industry, the military and NASA will all need to step up to build this new international future if we are to succeed in preventing what ecologist Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons” from occurring in space. 


Moltz is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and author of the book Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space (Columbia University Press, 2014).