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Can we be good in space? Companies, nations, groups seek to keep the peace

By: Steve Rabey Special to The Gazette
October 17, 2016 Updated: October 18, 2016 at 10:18 am
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Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew in 1903. Today we take 3 billion commercial flights a year.

Fewer than 600 humans have traveled into space, and no Earthling has set foot on another heavenly body in decades. But that's about to change.

Say farewell to space 1.0, the era of government-dominated space exploration. Say hello to space 2.0, when a billionaire space race is funding dozens of emerging private companies that plan to sell tickets to space tourists, mine asteroids or create Martian colonies.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is among the new breed.

"I won the lottery with Amazon," he said at this spring's Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Now his billions fund his "boyhood dream." In 2000 he founded Blue Origin, an aerospace company that plans to enable "anybody to go into space," on brief, expensive rides.

Google billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt are backing Planetary Resources, "the Asteroid Mining Company." The company plans to launch an orbiting telescope to locate ore-rich space rocks it can mine with robotic spacecraft.

Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has sold more than 700 space travel tickets to celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber, and Angelina Jolie for $200,000 to $250,000. Flights will depart New Mexico's Spaceport America.

Leading the charge is Elon Musk (PayPal, SolarCity and Tesla Motors). Musk's SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) already is ferrying supplies to the International Space Station for NASA, but colonizing Mars is his long-term goal.

Keeping peace in space

Who will keep the peace in space? That's the job of the Air Force Space Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base.

Commanding Gen. John Hyten, who spoke before Bezos at the Space Symposium, described space as "a sea of peace" or "a theater of war," adding, "Every Department of Defense mission depends on space."

Meanwhile, industry leaders are working to make sure humanity's final frontier doesn't resemble the Wild West.

"It's a new world out there," says Steve Eisenhart, the Space Foundation's globe-trotting senior vice president for strategic and international affairs, "and there is a degree of self-policing involved. Everyone feels a degree of responsibility for what takes place in space.

"Folks want to do the right thing, not strip mine the crap out of the moon. There's a respect for space, and for the cataclysmic potential if something goes wrong, that drives them to do the right thing."

Eisenhart cites numerous factors that keep countries and companies in line:

- Cooperation. Russians and Americans work together in space, even if they don't always cooperate on Earth.

- Costs. "People will not do something stupid with extremely expensive satellites," says Eisenhart. If they do, they won't get funding or insurance for future launches.

- International bodies. Eisenhart has worked with the U.N.'s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space for 15 years, meeting with dozens of member nations to promote transparency and cooperation.

Efforts to rein in humanity's astronomical aspirations remain weak. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits nations from claiming ownership of heavenly bodies, but doesn't mention private companies or space-obsessed billionaires. The Moon Treaty of 1979 reaffirms the prohibition against ownership of celestial bodies, but the United States, Russia and China never signed it.

Ian Christensen, a project manager in the Denver office of the Secure World Foundation, emphasizes sustainability as more players seek their place in space.

"The global space sector has seen a dramatic increase in new actors - commercial and governmental - as costs and barriers of entry come down," says Christensen. "Some of these actors are not necessarily familiar with traditional norms of operation or best practices, and that's revealing a greater need for more community dialogue on what the standards of behavior are."

Today, sustainability is threatened as more than 2,000 satellites orbit the Earth, dodging plentiful space debris and competing for access to a limited radio frequency spectrum.

Meanwhile, new commercial ventures threaten sustainability with plans for massive constellations of thousands of new satellites.

"That represents a fundamental change in the way we've gone about space activities," says Christensen, "and that would cause a massive technological challenge that would require significant communication and coordination."

That's why the Secure World Foundation works with the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group, an international body working on a regulatory framework for space activities.

"There are no roving space cops to punish the bad guys," says Christensen, "so we want to avoid active conflict between satellites, which would be destabilizing and drastically impact the ability of anyone to operate safely in orbit."

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