These are questions that space-law expert Dr. Jill Stuart has spent her career considering. With space tourism on the horizon and NASA paying SpaceX hundreds of millions for rocket launches, we asked Stuart, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science and former editor-in-chief of the journal Space Policy, about the new space age’s philosophical conundrums.
Hacking Finance: Is there a message you are hoping to spread with your work?
Dr. Jill Stuart: I hope that the public will become more involved and invested in the way that we govern space in the future. I’m old enough to remember telling people what I did, and their looking at me like I was absolutely crazy. I still get a little bit of that, but as soon as you start saying [that space infrastructure enables] GPS, financial transactions, telecommunications, people get it.
People are aware of the role that space activity plays in their lives…It will be interesting to see whether or not that awareness translates into differences in how we potentially regulate and govern the cosmos.
HF: Are there specific questions we should consider?
JS: We as individuals have a right to think about who is representing us [in space] and how. We can influence the process. I sometimes say to people, “How do you feel about SpaceX?” and they say, “Oh great, we love Elon Musk.”
And then I ask, “How do you feel about companies representing us in space?” “Oh no, we don’t want that.”
Well, SpaceX is a company. Do you want a government? Well, a lot of these companies are backed by governments. Do you want a conglomerate of governments? And I don’t actually have an opinion [on which is best.]
HF: Space is often described as a “frontier,” which is a potentially fraught analogy, considering—I think you mentioned this in a talk—that you have Native American heritage. Is that correct?
JS: Yes, I’m Indian. I grew up with white privilege, but if you trace it back, I’m actually Choctaw, and I grew up on an Indian Reservation, although not the tribe that I’m from. It’s the Klamath reservation in Oregon—bumblefuck Oregon, basically. My mom worked for the tribe, and I was raised in that environment.
HF: Did growing up on a reservation shape your interest in space?
JS: One of the things in my deeper research is how we view terra firma—how we view resources. We are all so accustomed to the concept of the nation state, whereby territory is fixed. But back in the day, in a lot of cultures, your territory moved with you as you migrated during different seasons.
The Roman Catholic church, the feudal system, embassies as enclaves of territory: these are all different conceptualizations of the way territory and sovereignty related to each other. So, actually, this territorially fixed idea of “this is a country, this is a boundary,” is a very modern concept. And one of the reasons I was interested in outer space in the first place is because it challenges those philosophical conceptions.
Everything that we put in outer space has to be registered with a launching state. So, a satellite that is plummeting through space, at whatever speed, is actually a little enclave of a country.
People think I was a Star Trek geek or whatever, but actually it was [this feeling of], “Oh my God, this is such a weird thing. How do we humans deal with this and think about it?”
HF: Are there other analogies that can help us understand space?
JS: The High Seas [parts of the oceans not under any country’s jurisdiction] is another obvious one. How do you conceptualize and legalize water? How are we mining the sea beds? What do we do about fish as a resource that are within the High Seas? Initially the boundaries had to do with how far you could defend your own terra firma.
All of these things can help us think about outer space, but I don’t think these pre-existing analogies absolutely have to determine how we are going to regulate outer space. There are a lot of people who work in outer space policy who are very deterministic, [and who think that] so as long as industry or technology provides it, we’ll just follow. I don’t think we necessarily need to be so reactive.
I also work in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and that’s another area where people are quite reactive.
HF: In what way?
JS: Because there’s a huge discussion about regulation. I work for an organization (METI) that is actively sending out communication [to extraterrestrial life], and there are a lot of people who think we should…their phrase is that we should “hide under a rock.”
I am on the side of being very liberal about what we send out and who can send it. Partly because I don’t think we’re going to make contact, so I think it’s more of a philosophical exercise for us. When we look out, we look back in, and what do we think about ourselves? Do we want to sanitize ourselves, erase our history? I don’t think so.
HF: What’s your hope for the future?
JS: My greatest hope is to make contact with extraterrestrial life in our lifetime, although I don’t think it will happen, if I’m really honest. I think humanity is potentially on the brink of disaster, and I think they could help us.
That’s something you don’t hear about extraterrestrial life very often. People usually see them as potentially malign. But I think they could be our saving grace.