Sustainable Development of Space

February 12, 2021

Aaron Boley, 2016 Wall Scholar, and Michael Byers organized this PWIAS Roundtable on March 10-12, 2020 to address new and acute challenges concerning the extraction and use of space resources, i.e., space mining. This topic has been made salient due to direct actions by States, enacting national regulation that attempt to advance a nation’s favoured view of international space law, even if such views could have negative short-term risks for other actors and long-term risks for everyone.

Roundtable participants came from a wide range of disciplines, including, archaeology, astronomy, engineering, governance, history, international law, public policy, and space exploration; and geographical locations, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States, and Uruguay.

To help with the discussions, we used the large conference windows to produce a map of our discussion and to demonstrate relations between topics graphically. The conference was held one week before the world shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions.  As a result, about half of the participants joined over Zoom.  The workshop was very successful with the mixture of in-person and online participants, all of whom were very involved. So much so that it demonstrated that mixed in-person and virtual conferences are viable for attracting more diverse participation, as well as being more equitable. No COVID-19 transmissions due to participant travel occurred.

The research led to the development of the Vancouver Recommendations on Space Mining. This document has led to ongoing discussion and analysis by other groups.  The workshop further helped to provide a springboard for a rapid response to major policy developments, advanced by the Trump Administration, that challenged the existing interpretation of international space law in a way that would allow the U.S. to pursue short-term interests at the potential risk to the long-term sustainable development of space. The resulting effort led to an International Open Letter on Space Mining, signed by Nobel Laureates, former high government officials, leading scientists and legal scholars, and several major institutions. The letter is already being cited by other groups as an influential policy document:

Finally, complementary work coming off the heels of the workshop led to an article published in Science, that directly challenged, among other things, the US Administration’s approach toward establishing precedent for space mining activities. The article is in the top 5% of research articles for its age according to the Altmetric rubric.   “U.S. policy puts the safe development of space at risk”, Science 9 Oct 2020, Vol 370. 6513:174-1

Authors: Aaron Boley and Michael Byers
Image courtesy of NASA (Unsplash)