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The coming space age promises to draw academics into a mad scramble for strategic resources and positions. The very language we use to talk about outer space — the so-called “final frontier” — suggests how much is at stake. In the 15th century, the word “frontier” referred to the borderlands between empires or to the front part of an army. By the 17th century, the term had come to mean the geographic edges of European colonies in Asia and the Americas — coveted terrain. That mind-set survived the formal end of European imperialism. In the period of decolonization following the Second World War, economists and investors began to use the phrase “frontier economies” to refer to those places where workers specialized in the extraction of raw materials and lacked extensive welfare states. Typically, these places were the former colonies of European empires (like India or the Philippines) or the recently colonized, resource-rich spaces within settler states themselves (like Alaska). Outer space promises to be the next “frontier economy” — rich in resources and vulnerable to depredation. The headline of a recent New Yorker article puts a fine point on the problem: “Is Mars Ours?” We could add: Is the moon? What about asteroids?
In theory, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty should answer this question. No nation can claim sovereignty over a celestial body, full stop. But this agreement tells us little about who can extract water or minerals from bodies in space. Last year, a group of nations — including the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom — signed the Artemis Accords, which affirmed a kind of squatters’ rights system: If you can get your equipment or astronauts onto a space body, you can use the water or minerals you find there. Perhaps even more importantly, neither the Outer Space Treaty nor the Artemis Accords make clear what happens when a nation’s government decides that it can effectively claim sovereignty, challenging others to stop it. Such grabs are becoming common. In the last few years, China and Russia have both asserted de facto sovereignty over territory in ways unrecognized by international law, and they have done so here on earth — a place with far more enforcement mechanisms than the international community is likely to have in space.
Today, the U.S. government and industry leaders openly discuss the coming space age in language that recalls the mythos of the frontier. In describing the goals of the Space Force — a new branch of the U.S. Armed Forces — former Vice President Mike Pence explained that its aim would be to ensure “security” for the nation’s “private pioneers … [who] cultivate the vast expanses” of space. In other words, Pence envisioned the Space Force as a 21st-century version of the 19th-century U.S. cavalry — there to protect settlers and land speculators from the consequences of their own behavior. While Pence is no longer in office, those “private pioneers” are still working to develop space commerce. In a policy white paper, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote that he hoped to reduce the cost of transit to Mars to around $200,000 per person. Settlers would not have to pay cash up front. Rather, they could “get sponsorship” and repay their sponsors over years or even decades — a win-win, Musk suggests, since an influx of settlers would address the “labor shortage” on the red planet. In other words, Musk has proposed a system that sounds very similar to 17th-century indentured servitude, which moved huge numbers of Europeans to the Americas (and produced enormous suffering in the process). This line of thinking suggests just how fully today’s age of exploration remains in thrall to earlier colonial economies.
American political leaders have taken to calling outer space a “frontier” because the word conjures up visions of limitless and frictionless expansion. But actual frontiers, unlike their mythic counterparts, are spaces where institutions are too weak to enforce laws, rules, and norms. Universities, then, will be one of only a few major institutions able to make demands on those who act in outer space. The reason is simple: Universities provide much of the technical and legal expertise necessary for the 21st-century space age.
University professors were key players in this work. Consider the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a book-length set of navigational calculations first compiled by the U.S. Navy in 1852 and a forerunner to today’s GPS. The book would become an important guide in U.S. military affairs throughout the 19th century. Yet while the Navy paid for the American Ephemeris, naval officers didn’t have the expertise to handle the project’s cutting-edge science. Instead, the Navy turned to a group of university professors. That group included Benjamin Peirce, a professor at Harvard; Ezra Otis Kendall, an observatory director and then professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Maria Mitchell, who would go on to become a professor at Vassar College.
With only a few exceptions, those professors regarded their work as apolitical, although it wasn’t. Like scientists today, they produced research of enormous military, commercial, and scientific value. The Ephemeris proved invaluable to Union naval commanders as they sought to blockade Confederate ports during the U.S. Civil War, and would continue to be used in naval affairs in subsequent decades — notably during the American seizure of the Philippines. But the professors whose calculations made these naval victories possible left no record of how they viewed the ethical stakes of their work.
Scholars in many disciplines are poised to think carefully about the meaning, value, and risks of space exploration.
By the late 20th century, however, American university professors could no longer sidestep their own entanglement with U.S. militarism. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, between 40 and 80 percent of the U.S. government’s research and development budget passed through the Department of Defense on its way to universities, corporations, and other institutions. These links did not merely implicate universities in ethically fraught research — they also gave universities leverage. Some used this leverage to influence policy. In 1945, a group of researchers founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a periodical that advocated for nuclear-arms control. The Bulletin still exists and in recent years has published articles calling for arms control in space, new international agreements governing the use of space, and ways to de-escalate space-based conflicts once they begin. More recently, other academics have formed new institutions to confront the potential dangers of a nascent space colonialism. In 2018, the astronomers Erika Nesvold and Lucianne Walkowicz created the JustSpace Alliance, an organization that aims to bring a broader array of voices into conversations about future space policy.
To be sure, a historian examining asteroid-mining plans might not have any particular expertise about space. But upon learning just how much rare metal is locked inside orbiting asteroids, she could draw historical parallels. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, a flood of South American gold and silver into Europe and Asia initially boosted economies but later sparked an economic crisis. Some historians have even suggested that fluctuating flows of American silver contributed to the 1644 collapse of the Ming dynasty. History does not repeat itself, exactly. But attending to the past can help us parse the long-term consequences of dramatic change, including the potential commodity shocks that the coming space age may inaugurate.
Administrators have a role to play here, too. Right now, universities contribute to the space industry in ad hoc ways — an individual professor or laboratory might partner with a private company or receive a government grant. But administrators are poised to take a broader view of the role their institutions are playing in outer space. In fact, we already have models for how to scrutinize collaborations between universities and partners: Institutional Review Boards, which review human-subject research. Since 1974, these boards in the U.S. have been guided by three essential principles: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. To avoid groupthink, these boards build in a diversity of viewpoints, with at least at least one member from a nonscientific background such law, ethics, or theology. They are also required to be diverse by race and gender. Through these panels, universities have established institutional frameworks that compel researchers and their partners to think ethically about the consequences of their work. This success can and should be exported to new, extraterrestrial domains of academic activity.
Right now, outer-space stories often appear to be a fun distraction from more-serious news. Rocket prototypes explode several times, but then one finally sticks the landing. A billionaire launches himself into space. Another billionaire launches himself into space. But the potential changes to human society are momentous, and planning for these changes will require people whose job it is to think beyond the next earnings report or the next war.
Long-term thinking, interdisciplinarity, and diversity — these values are fundamental to universities. And these values are, at their core, manifestations of intellectual humility. Because the academic search for the truth always takes place in the context of uncertainty, academics themselves tend to privilege collaboration, expertise, and long-term study. But such values are not necessarily fundamental for institutions that partner with universities. Private companies will understandably seek ways to maximize profits. Militaries will understandably seek ways to maximize security. Academics, then, must advocate for our own values when collaborating with outside partners. If we don’t, who will?