The Democratization of Space

New Actors Need New Rules

Flying private: a SpaceX cargo ship, April 2014 NASA

Starting with the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik in 1957, early space missions were funded exclusively by national governments, and for good reason: going to space was astronomically expensive. Setting up a successful space program meant making major investments in expertise and infrastructure, along with tolerating a great deal of risk—which only the superpowers could do. NASA’s Apollo program, for instance, employed 400,000 people, cost more than $110 billion in today’s dollars, and resulted in the death of three skilled astronauts. Not surprisingly, then, the legal framework that developed as the space race intensified was government-centric. In 1967, the United States, the Soviet Union, and many other countries signed the Outer Space Treaty, which set up a framework for managing activities in space—usually defined as beginning 62 miles above sea level. The treaty established national governments as the parties responsible for governing space, a principle that remains in place today.

Half a century later, however, building a basic satellite is no longer considered rocket science. Thanks to the availability of small, energy-efficient computers, innovative manufacturing processes, and new business models for launching rockets, it has become easier than ever to launch a space mission. These advances have opened up space to a crowd of new actors, from developing countries to small start-ups. In other words, a new space race has begun, and in this one, nation-states are not the only participants. Unlike in the first space race, the challenge in this one will not be technical; it will be figuring out how to regulate this welter of new activity.


Computing gets much of the credit for lowering the barriers to entry to space. The modern smartphone is the product of three-plus decades of advances in circuit design and fabrication techniques, and today’s processors pack 1,000 times as many transistors as their predecessors did 20 years ago. The iPhone 6 has as much computational power as a supercomputer from the 1990s did. Smaller also means more energy efficient: a typical cell phone will draw just 25

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