Why diplomacy is needed now to set rules for outer space

view of earth from International Space Station
NASA handout image taken from the International Space Station. Photo by NASA via Getty Images

With private companies dominating the space economy and the International Space Station approaching its decommissioning, it is now more important than ever to engage in space diplomacy to preserve international cooperation, a Northeastern expert says.

“There’s a huge shortage of rules,” says Mai’a K. Davis Cross, director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures and dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy.

Regulations outlining the rules for activities of both different countries and private companies in space, Cross says, would benefit peaceful cooperation, safety of personnel and property and efficient use of resources.

headshot of Mai'a Cross
Prof. Mai’a K. Davis Cross, Dean’s Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Diplomacy, poses for a portrait. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Cross will co-host an international symposium on space diplomacy for policymakers and practitioners in the Hague on June 12 on behalf of the Northeastern’s Center for International Affairs and World Cultures and in cooperation with University of Leiden.

Space has historically been treated as a separate realm for human activity, Cross says, despite what was happening on Earth. The International Space Station has been a hub for human presence and science in outer space since 1998.

As it is approaching the end of its lifetime, the plans are to decommission the International Space Station by 2030. What its substitute will be, Cross says, is not clear.

“There’s a lot of complication and competition over what form a new cooperative venture in space will take,” she says. “And we already know it’s not going to look exactly the same.”

Currently, there are only 14 countries with launching capabilities and 70 countries that have space programs. In 2021, China launched its own Tiangong space station, adding a science lab module to it in June 2022.

The space economy has also been growing rapidly because of the rise of private companies in the space industry, Cross says. It has surpassed $450 billion value and is expected to exceed $1 trillion by 2040. 

When viewed by country, the U.S. still dominates the space economy, generating about one half of total production and constantly increasing public investment in NASA. In a public versus private review, the private sector already constitutes 80% of the space economy. 

Private companies are expected to build multiple private space stations as well and are looking to space experts to devise new rules and regulations, Cross says, so they know how to operate in space. 

“All of these developments are incredibly complex and require diplomacy to navigate through them,” Cross says.

The U.S. Department of State released the first-ever Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy last week. The department announced that it intends to use this framework to “promote U.S. space leadership in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes and advance U.S. and allied security priorities.” 

It also promised to pursue and maintain a rules-based international framework for outer space activities, including the long-term sustainability, commercialization, exploration and utilization of space. 

In October 2020, the U.S. has put forward the Artemis accords to formalize the renewed interest in returning to the moon and developing the technology that will help humans go beyond the moon to Mars.The accords reflect general norms of the original Outer Space Treaty from 1968 and restate that space is for all humanity. 

Multiple governments have signed multilateral nonbinding agreements with the U.S. to participate in the Artemis program. However, Cross says, Russia is unlikely to sign this treaty.

“That requires a lot of diplomacy,” she says.

She thinks that despite the war in Ukraine, a dialog between the U.S. and Russia is possible. Cross says her research in the archives uncovered multiple ways in which the U.S. cooperated with the USSR during the Cold War.

“Actually every step of the way there was cooperation to the point where the U.S. government had bipartisan agreement, official formal agreement, that they would do a joint moon landing with the Soviet Union,” Cross says.

She points out that there was a time when the U.S. was fully dependent on Russia in getting astronauts to the International Space Station. Between 2006 and 2020, NASA had paid Russia to take 71 astronauts to the space station in Soyuz rockets. When NASA retired its shuttle in 2011, Soyuz became the only way for American astronauts to go to orbit until SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft was put in operation in 2020.

Cross is convinced that international cooperation is absolutely necessary in order to do anything beyond launching satellites or launching astronauts to a space station. Space exploration is very costly, she says, and hard to do without shared funding, technical know-hows and political will.

“There’s this notion that space is for all of humanity,” she says, “and if you can cooperate in one realm, it helps ease the tensions in the other realm.” 

Cross warns that if some participants who assume that space is the next battlefield decide to implement space military forces that they are talking about, it will lead to spreading conflicts beyond Earth and limit scientific inquiry. There is also a concern about the environmental degradation and spreading it into space.

“A lot of the work that I’m doing right now and talking to policy communities is to emphasize the space diplomacy side of things as opposed to the space race rhetoric that’s increasingly becoming very frequent,” she says.

Cross has recently co-edited an open-access special issue of the Hague Journal of Diplomacy titled “Space Diplomacy: The Final Frontier of Theory and Practice.” 

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.