Summary

Humanity’s long-run future could be vast in scale and duration, because almost all of it could lie beyond Earth. As private interest in space increases, early work on space governance could positively shape that spacefaring future, and make it less likely that a future in space goes irreversibly wrong. Of course, it also matters that humanity avoids catastrophe in the meantime, and space governance focused on arms control and diplomacy can help here too — mostly by reducing the risk of great power conflict. However, the path to making a really important difference on these issues looks much less clear and robust than in some of our other top recommended areas.

Our overall view

Sometimes recommended

We’re not sure this area has room for that many people, but we’d guess a few pioneers could do a lot to build the field and would be very excited to see that happen.

Scale  

Creating the right foundations for space governance today could end up being enormously valuable if that work positively influences how space is governed in the long run. In any case, the value of reducing the chance of conflict between spacefaring nations is large.

Neglectedness  

Many aspects of space governance look significantly less neglected than other issues we prioritise, though still more neglected than most issues people focus on. Several think tanks already address legal- and defence-related issues in space, and there seem to be 400–500 people working directly on space governance.1 However, at the time of writing, we think fewer than five people are working on researching space governance from a longtermist perspective — and maybe no more than the equivalent of one person working full-time.

Solvability  

It should be feasible to make progress on some research areas within space governance, such as arms control and dealing with space debris. But other areas could be unusually speculative.

When it comes to influencing decisions, things look more difficult. It might be most feasible to get agreement on issues that aren’t urgent, like questions about settling beyond the solar system. But deliberations about space governance are led by powerful actors (countries and companies) that are mostly guided by existing interests — in the majority of cases, it will probably be hard to shift the course of those deliberations. However, academics and think tank researchers are in some cases able to influence policymakers, and you could try to shape space governance by going into policy or private industry yourself.

Profile depth

In-depth 

This is one of many profiles we've written to help people find the most pressing problems they can solve with their careers. Learn more about how we compare different problems, see how we try to score them numerically, and see how this problem compares to the others we've considered so far.

The recording may not reflect the most recent changes to this article.

Introduction

Over the last four decades, the cost to launch a kilogram of payload (about the weight of a bunch of bananas) into space has fallen from roughly $50,000 (for NASA’s Space Shuttle) to less than $1,500 (for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy). With its new reusable designs, SpaceX aims to further cut launch costs to around $10 per kilogram. Cheap, reusable rocket technology could mark the beginning of a new ‘space race,’ with the frequency of launches potentially increasing from hundreds per year to hundreds per day.

It’s worth taking seriously some of the crazier ways this could play out. If things go well, we could choose for our time on Earth to become just the first stage of a journey into space. We might eventually make use of an almost limitless supply of material resources orbiting around the Sun, and begin to establish self-sustaining communities living beyond Earth. In the longer run, very large numbers of people could live beyond our home planet. A spacefaring future for humanity would make us resilient to disasters local to one planet, and it could also just become varied and expansive compared to remaining Earthbound, in ways that are hard to imagine now.

Ultimately, the sheer scale of the accessible universe makes the question of what we eventually do with and within it enormously important. If the human story ends before spreading beyond Earth, perhaps we would have missed out on almost all the valuable things we could have reached.

But it’s also easy to see things going wrong. The satellites in ‘low-Earth orbit’ are critical infrastructure, but could be unusually easy to disrupt or disable. Competition over outer space, or just ambiguity over issues of liability, could increase the risk of a great power conflict or lead to an anti-satellite arms race. Different actors unilaterally competing to land the first people on Mars, or build the first permanent structures on the Moon, could cement uncooperative norms around exploring space that persist long into the future. And if different groups rush to independently settle beyond Earth in a relatively ungoverned way, it could be far more difficult to get humanity-wide agreement — such as to prohibit a powerful weapons technology, or pursue a period of ‘reflection’ before we embark down a path which would be hard to backtrack.

But simply trying to delay potentially risky moves in space probably isn’t the only strategy, and sometimes it might even be a bad one. As with the development of artificial intelligence, serious delays sometimes require an infeasible amount of multilateral agreement — because private actors are incentivised by an enormous and growing private space industry, and national actors by concerns about reconnaissance and security capabilities. Some of the best ways to make a positive difference will instead be to help navigate away from the risks (and toward the potential benefits), given whatever rate of progress the world is making.

An especially promising way to do this could be to decide in advance how to govern activities in outer space — such as how to handle many times more space debris, how to resolve disputes over property or allocate property in advance, and how to restrict the use of weapons in space.2 Because these sorts of governance mechanisms are currently lagging far behind this new race for space driven by rapidly falling launch costs, now could be an unusually influential time for humanity’s future in space.

Why could this be a pressing problem?

Almost all of humanity’s long-run future could lie in space — it could go well, but that’s not guaranteed

If the cost of travelling to other planetary bodies continues the trend in the chart above and falls by an order of magnitude or so, then we might begin to build increasingly permanent and self-sustaining settlements. Although truly self-sustaining settlements are a long way off, both NASA and China have proposed plans for a Moon base, and China recently announced plans to construct a base on Mars.

Building a semi-permanent presence on Mars will be very, very hard. Mars’s atmosphere is around 1% as dense as Earth’s, and the surface receives around 50 times the amount of radiation that we get on Earth. Plus, Mars’s soil is toxic to humans and unsuitable for growing plants without being decontaminated. Initially, the base will require a continual supply of resources, parts, fuel, and people from Earth.

But if we wanted to, it looks like we could eventually get more ambitious. For instance, the aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin has outlined a plan for reaching material self-sufficiency, including terraforming Mars to the point at which the atmosphere is breathable. The point at which such settlements become self-sustaining is a critical one, because that’s roughly the point where they might be useful for recovering if a catastrophe occurs on Earth.

Standard Toros
Instead of planets, life beyond Earth might be supported by artificial structures. O’Neill cylinders were one early proposal: giant donuts that rotate slowly to mimic Earth’s gravity. At even bigger scales, enormous structures such as Dyson spheres might be constructed to capture more of the Sun’s energy (although this might require disassembling Mercury).

People (in some form) might one day also travel and even settle beyond the solar system. The technology doesn’t yet exist, so it would be naive to try describing it in detail. But we don’t yet know of any insurmountable obstacles — such as from the laws of physics, costs, or time constraints — to spreading very far through space, and even to other galaxies. As hazy as this all is, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that people might one day spread very widely throughout space, such that almost all the people who live in the future eventually live beyond Earth.

While the Earth will likely be rendered uninhabitable within about one billion years, stars will continue to be capable of supporting life for at least tens of thousands of times longer.3 So a spacefaring future for humanity might not only support far more people than an Earthbound future, but it could last far longer.

This could be very good, or very bad.

On one hand, life beyond Earth might be so dominated by competition, conflict, disagreement, or adversity, that it could end up being bad overall. Maybe the openness of space would tip the balance in favour of military offence over defence, or reward the most greedy pioneers whose aim is just to lay claim to more territory than their neighbours. Unlike on Earth, it might be literally impossible to escape to a friendlier regime, and the large distances between groups could mean far less natural pressure to conform to the cooperative norms of the ‘neighbours,’ so it could be easier for values to drift in a bad direction.

On the other hand, spreading to the stars could be a boon for humanity. With almost unlimited resources and literal space to make use of, our descendents might realise all kinds of desirable futures — some very hard to imagine from our perspective. In particular, spreading to space would enable continual economic growth for many centuries longer than it may be possible on Earth, supporting many more lives worth living. If you’re worried that stagnation on Earth could make conflict and competition more likely, this could be good news.

Whether a future in space goes well could significantly depend on how it’s governed now

There are some reasons to expect that a lot of the variance between these good and bad outcomes could depend on how space ends up being governed.

We have examples of good and bad governance on Earth, and the quality of life under those regimes normally depends closely on the quality of governance. In particular, by providing forums for coordinating toward shared goals, and making the threat of a collective response to aggression more credible, effective international and bilateral governance seem to have reduced the risk of serious conflict between countries.4

Maybe humanity’s future in space would go best if it were not held together by any kind of governance regime(s) at all. But it’s telling that none of the most prosperous groups on Earth were or are true anarchies, in the sense of having no binding rules. Even if you suspected that total anarchy in space would be good, it would make sense to be very confident of that before humanity begins to spread beyond Earth.

Bad governance could also lead to some of the worst imaginable futures, especially if you have some reason to think totalitarian regimes might be easier to maintain beyond Earth.

Either way, it looks like governance in space will go a long way to determining how well or badly space settlements turn out. But that doesn’t show that space governance is now a pressing problem. For that, we’d need to think that how space is governed in the longer run could end up depending in some predictable way on how it’s governed in the next few decades. This is far from certain — but if it’s true, then shaping space governance now could matter enormously. So how might it work?

In one scenario, we might gradually spread to self-sustaining settlements beyond Earth, over the course of a century or longer. In this case, it could be informative to look at how some countries’ early constitutions have influenced their trajectory as they grew much larger over decades or centuries.

Perhaps owing to the far-sightedness of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution of the United States has survived as the country’s population grew more than 100-fold. Over that period, it seems to have more or less continually reinforced the country’s commitment to a democratic political arrangement, and rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Perhaps a founding document early on in an effort to spread beyond Earth could be similarly instrumental.5

There’s another scenario in which things happen much faster, and more dramatically. This is because it may be possible to build small and extremely fast-travelling probes, which, once launched, could build settlements based on the ‘blueprints’ we give them. In fact, they could replicate indefinitely, similar to how an acorn turns earth and sunlight into an oak tree, which then produces many acorns. Because of this self-replicating possibility, the probes we launch in this ‘explosive’ period might eventually settle most of the places that will ever be settled, which is perhaps a significant fraction of the entire accessible universe.6 Yet, because we could launch many of these probes all at once, this could all happen very quickly — and it could be difficult to reverse our decisions afterwards.

Of course, biological humans wouldn’t come along for the ride in this scenario. But these probes might carry the ingredients to run or recreate at least human minds, by storing or instantiating them digitally.7

If something even resembling this scenario plays out, it would be a pivotal moment for humanity. We could determine the values and governance structures that get sent from Earth, and those things might then become ‘locked in’ for an extraordinarily long period of time. Holden Karnofsky8 writes in his blog:

[…] whoever is running the process of space expansion might be able to determine what sorts of people are in charge of the settlements and what sorts of societal values they have, in a way that is stable for many billions of years.

If either of these scenarios happens this century, it seems important to begin thinking seriously about how to positively influence the process. For example:

  • How should ownership and property be allocated?
  • What could ideal constitutions (or similar) look like?
  • What rules do we want in place for sending instructions to unmanned spacecraft after they’ve left Earth?

If these scenarios don’t sound wildly implausible to you — and you think that advance thinking could meaningfully improve the odds that they go well — then you might think that this could be by far the most important way in which space governance ends up mattering.

We’ll look at objections later, but just note for now that this is of course a very speculative case. Next, we’ll consider a more immediate and concrete reason for working on space governance.

Effective arms control in space could reduce the risk of conflict back on Earth

More and more critical infrastructure is getting placed in orbit, while governance frameworks about space conflict remain weak and ambiguous. Nearly 4,000 satellites already operate in a region called low-Earth orbit. We rely on this network of satellites for communications, GPS, remote sensing, and imaging useful for disaster relief.

However, a situation where satellites are especially vulnerable to attack wouldn’t just be bad because we could lose civilian infrastructure. Reconnaissance satellites are also used by militaries for early warnings of ballistic missile launches, detecting nuclear explosions, and spotting aggressive movements with photography or radar. If these information-gathering satellites get disabled, the country relying on them would suddenly be far less certain about whether and when they are under attack, making escalation from perceived provocation more likely.9

At the same time, India, China, the US, and Russia are all developing some form of anti-satellite weapon systems — meaning ground-to-air, air-to-air, or cyberweapons designed to disable enemy satellites (utility or military). Satellites are currently infeasible to repair once broken, and expensive to replace. Yet, proposed international frameworks for either banning or controlling these new weapons have not yet materialised. This combination of fragility and uncertainty could make conflict in space especially easy to trigger, in turn increasing the risk of conflict back on Earth. This kind of conflict would most likely take place between great powers, given their disproportionate presence in space, meaning the risk of escalation could be especially high.

Fortunately, we know that disarmament agreements can work: for instance, the START and New START treaties between the United States and Russia successfully reduced and limited stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons. So a promising way to reduce the risk of great power conflict is to work on pushing for disarmament agreements in space — with a special focus on rules against targeting enemy reconnaissance satellites.10

Now could be an especially good opportunity to influence space governance

But how easy is it to shape space governance? In fact, it looks like there could be some unusually big opportunities to do so now and in the near future.

Current international governance frameworks for space are sparse and out of date, and because private companies are suddenly getting involved in space, important decisions are likely to be made soon. The most significant international agreement to date is the Outer Space Treaty, which entered into force in 1967 — more than half a century ago.11 There was an attempt to get countries to agree on some fairly demanding rules in 1979 with the Moon Agreement, but it almost entirely failed.12 13

Therefore, countries are increasingly developing their own national space governance frameworks to fill in where the international guidelines are unclear. For instance, the United States adopted the Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015, which makes an explicit provision for private property rights in space.

Meanwhile, the private space industry looks set to more than double in size in the next few decades. Today, it’s worth just over $300 billion, and global government space budgets total to around $70 billion.14 The investment bank Morgan Stanley anticipates that the private space industry could be worth more than $1 trillion by 2040.15 And that’s not counting the slightly longer-term possibility that planetary bodies could be mined for the valuable and almost unlimited materials they contain.16

Several major space governance agreements are already being discussed, and stand some chance of being adopted within a decade. For instance, the Proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Space Treaty is currently being discussed in the Conference on Disarmament, a forum in the United Nations. In 2020, NASA and the US Department of State announced the Artemis Accords, an effort to establish an international framework for cooperation around space exploration outside of the UN.

But perhaps the most important (and most urgent) news is that in late 2021 the Secretary General of the United Nations announced a major new agenda,17 which includes a proposed “Summit of the Future” conference to take place in 2023. As part of that conference, the agenda calls for a “a multi-stakeholder dialogue on outer space […] bringing together Governments and other leading space actors” whose aims would be to “seek high-level political agreement on the peaceful, secure and sustainable use of outer space.” It also notes that existing international arrangements provide “only general guidance” on “the permanent settlement of celestial bodies and responsibilities for resource management” — implying this should be corrected. It seems likely that the organisers will announce a call for proposals sometime before this 2023 conference, in order to collect ideas from the wider research community. Perhaps we’ll see a major new international space treaty emerge from this or subsequent conferences — and perhaps you could help shape it.

It’s a safe bet that space is going to become a far more important area for governance. But we also know that serious work on governance can lag behind the presence of indicators that a problem is likely to be important — climate change is an example of this. So the ratio of likely importance to actual funding and activity could be unusually high for space governance right now — meaning early work could be more impactful than work later.

Acting early may be especially important for arms control in space. In general, it should be easier to get agreement when fewer actors have capabilities for a given weapons technology, because there are fewer competing interests to coordinate. Likewise for when those actors have invested less in developing weapons capabilities, since they have less to lose by agreeing to limits on their use. Effective arms control may be easier still if it is entirely preemptive: if a weapon hasn’t yet been built or tested by any actor.18

Agreement over long-run issues might be even more feasible

What about very long-run issues? Is there hope for reaching agreement on things like who is able to claim sovereignty over celestial bodies beyond the solar system?

In fact, work on coalescing agreement around principles for very long-term space governance might be relatively more achievable than for shorter-term issues (like asteroid mining or debris in near-Earth orbit). Particular nations are always less likely than humanity as a whole to survive to a given time. This means that nations will discount future gains more steeply than humanity should overall. This can be leveraged in the international context, since countries will be unusually willing to put aside self-interest in issues that only really matter over very long stretches of time, and instead might use their votes about such issues as a way to ‘signal’ cooperative intent by choosing the option that is best for other nations. Of course, whether those agreements last long enough to matter is a different question.

There are identifiable areas to make progress on

We’ve talked a bit about shaping long-run space settlement and arms control. In this section, we’ll list a few more specific factors, considerations, and subproblems.

Avoiding premature lock-in

Humanity should be aiming to keep its (positive) options open — we have very little idea about what kind of future on Earth or in space would be best. Embarking on ambitious projects in space might ‘lock in’ decisions that turn out to be misguided. Plausibly, we should therefore make time for a period of reflection before embarking on potentially irreversible projects to spread through space.

Furthermore, without any forethought or governance, humanity’s long-run future in space might become a kind of uncoordinated ‘free for all’ — where the most expansionist groups eventually dominate. Like extinction, this kind of fragmented future could be a kind of lock-in — harder to escape from than to enter into.

This suggests we should try to research ways to make sure that grand projects in space can be changed or reversed if it becomes clear they’re heading in a bad direction.

One speculative suggestion here is to design and encourage agreements that require unmanned missions from Earth to have some way of responding to messages from Earth once they’re launched.19 We might not want the future of space settlement almost entirely determined by the first movers — if the world reaches some kind of global consensus that some settlement should change course, it seems important to be able to communicate that.

Avoiding weaponised asteroid deflection

When thinking about risks from space, you’ll likely think of asteroids. Wouldn’t the space programmes of the world do well to urgently unite around building effective asteroid defence systems?

To begin with, it’s not particularly urgent (at least compared to preparing for other existential threats), because the risk from asteroids this century appears to be very low.20

But if we do develop asteroid defence systems, we should also handle them very carefully: any technology capable of deflecting an asteroid away from a collision course with Earth will make it easier to divert it toward Earth. In fact, the possibility of deliberate deflection of near-Earth objects could pose the greatest threat to Earth from space this century.21 As Carl Sagan and Steven J. Ostro write: “premature deployment of any asteroid orbit-modification capability […] may introduce a new category of danger that dwarfs that posed by the objects themselves.”

To address this worry, countries might:

  • Agree on a monitoring network for asteroid deflection.
  • Regulate technology with the potential to divert planetary bodies.
  • Consider mandating liability insurance (similar to proposals in the context of risky biological research).

For more detail, see this longer post about risks from asteroids.

Setting up rules for space debris to keep low-Earth orbit usable

Most of the roughly 6,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit are no longer operational — they have become fast-travelling pieces of junk. Smaller pieces of debris are created when flecks of paint come loose, when derelict spacecraft fragment into small pieces, or when particles of fuel are expelled from rocket motors.22

The result is a cloud of orbital debris, each piece flying through space around 10 times faster than a bullet. Space debris is already making space missions costlier and more risky,23 and the number of satellites in orbit is set to more than triple by 2028.

The dangers posed by orbital debris are mostly negative externalities — like how dumping chemical waste in a river affects not just you, but everyone downstream. In such cases, governance could impose clearer incentives to clear up debris — and develop the tech to do so.

Currently, there is no international authority both monitoring and enforcing any traffic regulations in orbit. There aren’t major reasons why this can’t be established soon — everyone would benefit from having some rules that reduce collisions (as we’ve seen in civil aviation). Efforts to make sure this gets implemented well could be valuable.

Figuring out how to distribute resources and property

It might be worthwhile to begin thinking about mechanisms for deciding who owns what in space.

Failing to have clear rules in advance could encourage risky and competitive behaviour, as players race to grab space and resources in the absence of any sort of governance. For instance, we could eventually mine resources from asteroids and the Moon. Mandating that nearly all resources be shared will leave little to no incentive to reach them in the first place, but some clear rules for how to distribute especially large ‘windfalls’ of wealth (as has been suggested for AI development) could be good.

What are the major arguments against this problem being pressing?

Early efforts could be washed out later

From a longtermist perspective, the strongest case for space governance is the idea that through early action, we can positively influence how space ends up being governed in a long-lasting way, or make sure the wrong values aren’t locked in.

But it could be very likely that early governance initiatives simply get ‘washed out’ by later decisions, such that the early work ends up having little influence on the way things eventually turn out. And the further away you think serious efforts at permanently settling space are, the more likely this seems. Ultimately, we’re not sure exactly how long to expect early efforts to last.

You don’t need to think the likelihood of significant and very long-lasting effects is zero to think you shouldn’t work on space governance — just that the chance of washout makes the case significantly weaker than other pressing problems.

Maybe we should wait before locking in decisions about space

Alternatively, you might think that pushing to set space governance agendas now is actually a bad idea, because it risks locking in worse governance frameworks than we could have come up with later. This might be the case if you think we’re likely to have much better ideas about what kinds of governance would be best later, and that there will be similar opportunities to influence key decisions at that time.

This criticism would apply to career options that involve enacting space law or advocating for it, but it would apply much less to cautious exploratory research around space governance (unless people misinterpret it as overly confident – which does seem possible!).

It could be very hard to influence

When considering the value of working on a problem, you want to know both how big a problem is and how much progress you can expect to make on helping solve it.

Influencing international decision-making is normally very difficult, even short of introducing entirely new proposals. If you chose to become a diplomat, it’s not as simple as just announcing you want to help shape your country’s national space agenda, or represent your country at the next Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space conference.

But even if you ended up participating in some talks at the UN, what then? The outcomes of these talks could be so strongly determined by political forces beyond your control that significantly influencing space governance decisions is almost impossible.

There are some reasons for optimism. Sometimes a few creative and passionate people really can make major international initiatives happen.24 Plus, it looks like the UN has expressed interest in concepts25 developed at research organisations we recommend working at (like the Future of Humanity Institute), which is an encouraging update.

We’re unsure where projects in space governance land here — but we wouldn’t be surprised if it were quite difficult to make progress.

Maybe we don’t need (strict) space governance

Some people advocate for settling space because of the possibility of escaping overbearing governance on Earth. On this ‘libertarian’ view of space settlement, more overarching governance is the last thing space settlers need.

The first thing to note here is that we’re interested in governance in a broad sense (which includes voluntary coalitions), so a scepticism of coercive or top-down government doesn’t need to rule out working on other kinds of space governance. You might also work on avoiding really bad or overreaching governance decisions, and that would count as useful work!

It may also be important to press for some amount of global governance of our first steps toward space settlement, even if the best long-run arrangement involves a lot of autonomy and independence between settlements. The optimal amount of government in the long run is unclear, but this doesn’t seem like as much of an urgent question.

Positively influencing the arrival of transformative AI could be much more important

If some views about advanced AI are right, it could be much more pressing to work on making sure AI aligns with the right values — in part because it looks like the highest-stakes space scenarios (e.g. those involving rapid settlement) are most likely to involve advanced AI.

After the arrival of very powerful AI, problems in space governance could look very different. Perhaps the political order will have changed, or new space technologies will emerge very quickly.

Further, the arrival of transformative AI could cause wide-reaching social and governance change. This could make it especially likely that early work on space governance gets washed out.

Finally, you might reasonably expect transformative AI to arrive sooner than successful projects to build or settle widely beyond Earth, since these projects look very difficult without the kind of sophisticated and widespread automation of engineering that transformative AI would enable.

If this story is right, then it might be more worthwhile to work on positively shaping the development of AI instead.

Interlude: some areas of space governance matter much less

We shouldn’t equally prioritise every problem space governance could address — some look far less pressing than others.

For instance, the chance of extinction-level supernovae and gamma-ray bursts colliding with Earth this century looks to be far less than one in a million, and it’s not clear how to specifically protect against them.

Furthermore, our most up-to-date reasoning suggests that intelligent life is exceptionally rare — far more so than early astronomers like Carl Sagan were imagining.26 The debate hasn’t been settled for good, but we probably know enough not to worry about preparing to meet aliens. Even so, it might be good to do some more collective thinking before we let people broadcast high-power messages into space designed to reach other civilisations (so-called ‘active SETI’ — Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) — after all, communicating with aliens isn’t guaranteed to go well.

We also probably shouldn’t prioritise speeding up space settlement if it at all decreases the chance it eventually goes well. In a paper called “Astronomical Waste,” the philosopher Nick Bostrom points out that we need to account for the possibility that we fail to settle beyond Earth at all (assuming that’s what you care about):

Because the lifespan of galaxies is measured in billions of years, whereas the time-scale of any delays that we could realistically affect would rather be measured in years or decades, the consideration of risk trumps the consideration of opportunity cost.

As long as it’s even roughly as easy to reduce the risk of space settlement going badly as it is to make space settlement happen earlier, then we should prioritise mitigating the risks over speeding up the process. What matters is the overall trajectory we’re most likely to follow, not how fast we speed along it.

This puts space governance in a loosely analogous position to the governance of advanced artificial intelligence: we shouldn’t be rushing to make it happen; we should work on making sure it’s safe and beneficial if or when it does.

What can you do to help?

There are at least two broad ways you can positively influence the governance of outer space:27

  1. You could do useful research — independently, as an academic, or at a think tank (especially if it could set you up for an advisory or policy role later).
  2. You could directly shape national or international decisions — for example, as a civil servant, a diplomat, or within a private space company.

Conducting useful research

We think some of the most promising areas of research concern preliminary, high-level thinking about how to ensure humanity’s first steps toward long-term space settlement begin on the right foot. But you might also research potential political and military dynamics in space as an input to research on governance. Anecdotally, many people working in space law seem to be unusually enthusiastic about new ideas, so your work could be directly useful by feeding into decision-making.

Doing good research can also set you up to advise important decision-makers on questions of space governance, since the people who end up making the decisions that matter will often seek advice from outside experts. Becoming known as an expert on some aspect of space governance could take less time, and be less risky, than aiming to become the diplomat who gets chosen to represent her country at the next meeting of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

This path to influence could take a few forms. For example, you could:

  • Complete a PhD on a neglected topic in space law.
  • Join a research organisation like the Future of Humanity Institute, or start your own with a special focus on space.
  • Join a think tank with close links to international or national decision-makers.
  • Start a new think tank dedicated to positively influencing space governance from a broadly longtermist perspective.

Shaping decisions

Working directly as a decision-maker would likely involve one of three approaches:

  • Becoming a diplomat and shaping international governance.
  • Becoming a policymaker to work on a country’s national space agenda.
  • Working within a major private space company.

On the national level, the US might end up being the most influential single country. Our article on the case for building expertise to work on US AI policy and how to do it could also apply to a career aimed at shaping the US space agenda.

Smaller national agendas could also matter disproportionately. For instance, the Luxembourg Space Agency has crafted a Space Resources Act — a legal framework on the exploration and use of space resources, intended to set a precedent for the rest of the world.

If you do set out for a career in policy or diplomacy, think about whether you would do well in and enjoy the career when you’re not working on space-related topics. Even if you succeed in eventually influencing space law, you’ll likely still spend a lot of time working on totally unrelated things. See our page on policy-oriented government jobs for more.

Finally, you might consider working for a major private space company, like SpaceX. Since private companies might end up leading the way in settling beyond Earth, it could be important to steer these companies away from setting risky precedents that last long into the future.

For similar reasons, we recommend working at top AI labs like DeepMind as a way to positively shape the development of artificial intelligence. Our article on working on AI policy and strategy has a lot of advice that could apply to space governance as well.

What are the key organisations you could work for?

Research organisations interested in space governance

We’ve focused on research organisations that we think embody the principles of effective altruism.

Think tanks and legal research institutes working on space policy

Major fora for international governance

Commercial space companies

Most of these companies have policy-related roles that interface with space governance actors.

Spaceflight companies:

Space debris companies:

Established aeronautics companies:

Career capital options: how to gain experience

Much of what we say in our article on a career in AI policy applies here. A background in law, public policy, or international relations will be useful both for research and policymaking. Most of the academic work pertaining to space governance is specifically work on space law, although a background in international relations and public policy could be just as useful.

Some universities in the US actually teach space law, such as the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, DC. The European Space Agency has an extensive list of institutions teaching space law across the world. MIT also offers an open online lecture series on space policy, which could be useful as a low-commitment test of the material.

Law isn’t your only option for valuable research. If you have a technical background — such as in an area of physics or economics — you might be well suited to more speculative or high-level research at a place like the Future of Humanity Institute.

If you want to work at a private space company, most careers require a technical background, often in aeronautics, materials engineering, software engineering, or engineering management. But many positions with business or policy functions are also suitable for those who have studied law, management, finance, economics, or similar.

Finally, if you’re not already familiar with effective altruism, we strongly recommend learning about it — you’ll find a set of key ideas about how to make a large positive impact, and a community of people working together toward that goal. If you are trying to help influence space governance for the better, it’ll be very helpful to know other people interested in long-term positive impact: to discuss your plans together, and to stay motivated. Learn about how to get involved.

Concrete questions in space governance you could research

Below are some questions that came up for us writing this article. We’re just listing them as a starting point, but we’re not confident they’re the highest-impact topics to research.

Politics, economics, and international relations

  • What economic mechanisms (e.g. auction or sharing) would be best for allocating space in low-Earth orbit when it becomes much more valuable and crowded? (Potentially relevant analogies include deep-sea mining and sharing arrangements for long-range electromagnetic waves used by satellites.)
  • Should we establish rules now about who can claim ownership over regions of space far beyond our own solar system? What could the best political or economic mechanisms look like here?
  • If the process of settling space involves establishing new political entities like nations, what would be the best way to organise them? Should they be founded with constitutions, and if so, what should those constitutions include?
  • What could the medium- and long-run economics of space look like?30 For instance, roughly when should we actually expect asteroid mining to become profitable? When could an off-Earth settlement become economically self-sustaining?
  • Should we be worried about a regulatory ‘race to the bottom,’ where countries compete to be the most favourable places to register private space companies and spacecraft? (Similar to the phenomenon of flags of convenience.)

History

Science and technology

  • How plausible is the rapid settlement scenario described above, in which space is settled by self-replicating probes that are launched from Earth in a relatively brief period of time (i.e. less than 50 years)? How much more or less likely is this scenario than a gradual process?
    • What technology would be required to settle widely beyond Earth? What is a reasonable ballpark timeline for when to expect this technology to arrive?
  • How much debris in low-Earth orbit is actually unsustainable (i.e. making it at least more than five times more expensive to access space for at least a century)?
    • Are we likely to reach such a point without mitigation efforts? If so, when?
    • How expensive and feasible are efforts to reduce and clean up debris likely to be?
    • How likely is Kessler syndrome at different densities of space debris?
    • Is space debris in geostationary orbit more or less concerning than in low-Earth orbit?
  • In a world in which different groups have established autonomous settlements beyond Earth, where does the balance of offence and defence lie? Is this likely to be a world full of first strikes, or is it likely to be relatively peaceful because it’s comparatively easier to defend against attacks than to succeed with them? (This seems to be a matter of both how the weapons are likely to work and how the politics will function.)31

Learn more

Acknowledgements

I, Fin Moorhouse, wrote this problem profile. I received invaluable guidance from conversations with Arden Koehler, Toby Ord, Anders Sandberg, Bartu Kaleagasi, Rajeswari Rajagopalan, Tobias Baumann, Luisa Corrado, Andrea Owe, Michael Dello-Iacovo, Charlotte Siegmann, and Timiebi Aganaba. Their help does not imply full agreement with everything written here, and all mistakes remain my own.

Notes and references

  1. Including academic research, corporate strategic foresight, and national and international space governance agencies.

  2. One reason this might be important to control is that weapons launched from space can arrive with less warning, which narrows the window to respond to provocations (thereby reducing deterrence) and increases the likelihood of false alarms.

  3. Note that if humanity eventually settles widely in space, it seems very likely that almost everyone will live in artificial structures rather than on planetary surfaces.

  4. Such as the New START arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia, the Chemical Weapons Convention, or the United Nations Security Council itself.

  5. However, note that constitutions do not tend to last nearly this long. So you should probably start off very sceptical that a ‘space constitution’ written today will survive long enough to matter.

  6. This scenario seems most likely if advanced artificial intelligence dramatically speeds up the rate of technological progress.

  7. Holden Karnofsky writes about the possibility of “digital people” here.

  8. For transparency: Karnofsky is the chief executive officer of the Open Philanthropy Project, which is a major donor to 80,00 Hours as well as the Future of Humanity Institute, where I (Fin Moorhouse) currently work.

  9. In October 1962, four Soviet submarines had been sent to Cuba during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A US warship detected one of these submarines and began dropping depth charges as ‘warning shots’ intended to force the submarine to resurface. With radar shut off, the captain on board interpreted these explosions as an indication that war might have broken out on the surface, so he ordered his crew to prepare to launch the submarine’s nuclear torpedo. By luck, the commander of the whole flotilla was onboard that submarine, and vetoed the captain’s decision. This was maybe the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war, and it happened because the Soviet submarine didn’t have access to strategic information about the movements of US warships — the submarine was too deep to monitor radio traffic, and had no reconnaissance from the surface. It’s possible to imagine how similar dynamics could hold in cases where reconnaissance satellites are disabled.

  10. Another promising idea is to use (internationally operated) satellites to help verify arms control agreements, such as prohibitions on the use of anti-satellite weapons in outer space. This is the central idea of the Canadian PAXSAT proposal.

  11. The primary focus of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) is arms control: it bars parties to the treaty from placing weapons of mass destruction anywhere in outer space, prohibits military testing or manoeuvres of any kind, and prohibits establishing permanent military bases. The other focus of the OST is on questions of claiming territory and expropriating resources. Article II states: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” But the term “national appropriation” isn’t defined in the treaty. In particular, the OST is ambiguous over whether resources from celestial bodies can be appropriated by non-state actors. Article I states that the “use of outer space […] shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries,” but this alone adds little clarity. The OST does state that non-governmental entities “shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty”.

  12. The Moon Agreement of 1979 set out to establish clearer and more demanding guidelines around using resources on the Moon and other celestial bodies, calling for an international regime to “govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon as such exploitation is about to become feasible.” But the agreement stipulated that resources appropriated from space shall be the “common heritage of mankind.” Though also left ambiguous, this clause too strongly suggested a regime where rewards must be fully shared. As such, no major spacefaring nation has ratified the Moon Agreement.

  13. The other major pieces of international space law are the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, and the Registration Convention.

  14. See also: Global Space Budgets – A Country-level Analysis and Global government space budgets continues multiyear rebound (a commentary on Euroconsult’s Government Space Programs 2019 report).

  15. This rapid projected growth is likely to be driven in the short term by demand for satellite infrastructure, especially for providing internet access. Beyond the immediate short term, some space advocates like Robert Zubrin have described an industry of private space travel, and international shipping by space for valuable and time-sensitive deliveries.

  16. Such as helium-3 on the Moon, which could be used as fuel for fusion power.

  17. You can read a summary for an audience interested in existential risk here.

  18. One example could be space laser weapons: destructive lasers beamed through space — either attached to satellites and aimed at ground targets, or vice-versa — capable of disabling reconnaissance satellites or intercontinental ballistic missiles mid-flight. Such capabilities could be destabilising, because they could increase the chance of a preemptive attack against the country that developed them — a worry that was raised as early as 1988, but could remain relevant. But lasers are just an illustrative example of the point: that falling costs to access space could open up the possibility of new kinds of weapons technology — some potentially destabilising — suggesting we should consider preemptive arms control for those technologies.

  19. Radio waves will always travel faster than any physical craft, but one potential issue is that they fade over long distances.

  20. See also Toby Ord, The Precipice (2020) p. 71, Table 3.1.

  21. This ‘dual-use’ concern mirrors other kinds of projects aimed at making us safer, but which pose their own risks, such as gain-of-function research on diseases.

  22. Debris roughly a millimetre in diameter represents the greatest mission-ending risk to most satellites in low-Earth orbit. This is because even tiny pieces of debris are travelling fast enough to cause serious damage, and most pieces of debris are very small.

  23. In 2021, a piece of space debris left a hole in a robotic arm attached to the International Space Station (ISS). A few months later, the ISS swerved to avoid a fragment of a US launch vehicle.

  24. For example, in 1958, a Ukrainian virologist called Viktor Zhdanov was a deputy health minister for the Soviet Union, when the Soviets made their first appearance at the World Health Assembly after nearly a decade of absence. At the assembly, Zhdanov presented an ambitious plan to eradicate smallpox from the entire world. Nobody pressured him to propose this; in fact, Zhdanov struggled to convince his own party of his plan. But he eventually convinced the other members of WHO with his informed enthusiasm. In the first part of the 20th century, smallpox had killed more people than all wars, genocides, and political famines combined. By 1977, the disease was entirely eradicated.

  25. Such as ‘existential risk,’ as in these remarks of the Secretary General in 2021.

  26. See, for instance, The Timing of Evolutionary Transitions Suggests Intelligent Life is Rare (2021) by Andrew E. Snyder-Beattie, Anders Sandberg, K. Eric Drexler, and Michael B. Bonsall; and Dissolving the Fermi Paradox (2018) by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, and Toby Ord.

  27. You could also become an advocate for causes relevant for space governance. We’re not so keen on this idea, since the details of what good space governance looks like are still being formed, and it may be easier to shape governance decisions in a more targeted way versus influencing many people so they petition their home countries. If you already have a large platform, a safer option could be to become something more like a communicator: dispelling potentially dangerous myths and instilling a general sense of the importance of securing humanity’s future in space. As a model of science communication done right, Carl Sagan is hard to beat. But either option probably involves doing relevant research first.

  28. Since being established in 1959, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has been the main international body responsible for governing outer space affairs. COPUOS produces advisory materials and hosts conferences, but hasn’t since produced agreements close to the importance of the Outer Space Treaty.

  29. Note that SpaceX is currently the largest private space company in the world — valuations plausibly exceed the next biggest company by 3–10 times.

  30. See this list of “science fiction economics” papers for inspiration.

  31. Note that if the balance favours defence — that is, regions of space are easy to protect — then early decisions could be more influential.