OPINION: High above the long white cloud, something incredible is happening.
Nasa recently landed Perseverance, its most advanced robotic rover yet, on Mars. The week before that, the United Arab Emirates’ probe Hope arrived in orbit. SpaceX is ramping up missions with a plan to put people on the red planet this decade and Virgin Galactic, is eyeing space tourism with final certification tentatively planned for this year. Space is opening up.
There are plenty of good reasons to go to space. From hard science and discovery to the shared feeling of wonder and unity that comes from watching it all unfold; unequivocal moments of wholesome human achievement unpolluted by politics.
Yet for most of us, space is often situated squarely in the realm of science fiction – a place for billionaires, engineers and air force pilots, barely relevant to daily Earthbound concerns.
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In the decades since the Moon landings, interest waned and public investment was falsely presented as an either/or scenario that plays one good thing against another. Now, whenever we talk about space, there is always a chorus of voices asking “what about the problems here on Earth?”
They’re not wrong. There are a few. But it’s not as simple as prioritising inequality or climate change over space. The reality is that space exploration is happening and ‘’how’’ we go is a question that will define the coming centuries.
In the last 20 years, the number of nations with active space agencies has doubled. Yet those agencies increasingly operate as business relations departments, creating a race to space that unfortunately emulates the global financial system in its deference to private interests and threatens the same long-term convolution and corruption.
Space is also practically devoid of international regulation. The only major treaty, first signed in 1967, deals with nuclear weapons, state ownership and little else, meaning a world of advancing technology and overlapping crises incentivises interest from private companies and nation states alike. The combined wealth and power of logistics, communications, primary resources and colonialism on an interplanetary scale is up for grabs.
In many ways New Zealand is in a prime position to take advantage of explosive growth in the space economy. It is certainly proving an excellent investment, with an agency budget of less than $10 milion and the sector contributing an estimated NZ$1.69 billion to the economy in 2018-19 alone.
Thanks to Rocket Lab, a US company founded by Kiwi Peter Beck, we also have a launch facility capable of delivering payloads into orbit, and there are countless smaller companies, collaborations and projects joining in the fun.
However, we, and every other nation and private interest involved, must bear responsibility for how things progress, and that extends far beyond the already problematic issue of space debris.
Space can and should be a source of prosperity, hope and security for everyone. One that doesn’t mirror, amplify or compete with problems on Earth, but elps solve them. For Aotearoa, the first step is to recognise space as something that belongs to all and needs protection, just like any other environment or resource – a Celestial Commons.
We already have global recognition as good global citizens. Our diplomatic and trade efforts, government officials and democratic system are all well regarded. Our positions on global issues are generally forward thinking, and we have consistently proven our ability to work with international partners on shared interests.
If we were to seize upon these credentials, Aotearoa could foster global collaboration in the formation of fresh space policy, guided by the notion of good space citizenship and shared prosperity, including reforms to the Outer Space Treaty around corporate ownership, resource management, governance, waste, arms and conflict. .
We could promote public dialogue and access to space-based tech, help build international institutions to share policy and decision-making and even pioneer a space wealth fund to fight poverty and climate change. We could be leaders in building a truly beautiful future for humanity. One driven by democratic engagement, equality and respect for all environments.
In doing so, we might look to Māori for guidance. While Aotearoa might not have billions in funding to send astronauts to Mars, it does have a unique indigenous culture steeped in the value and protection of natural resources, as well as a deep knowledge and appreciation of the stars. These values are eminently necessary as we and the rest of the world consider space policy in the coming decades. .
None of this would obstruct us from pursuing economic objectives. But it would help us stand out, cementing our status as world leaders and innovators. It would benefit the economy. It would benefit science. It would benefit the environment. And it would benefit people. All of them.
What happens above the long white cloud will affect everyone, for all generations to come. We should all be part of deciding how.
*Daniel Mackisack is a sociologist, entrepreneur and former diplomat and policy officer. He spent several years as a fellow mapping shifting networks through the Arab Spring. He co-founded media transparency startup ‘Write In Stone’, leads workshops on democratic decision-making and writes about space and society.
*Tristan O’Hanlon is a professional teaching fellow at the University of Auckland and undergraduate coordinator of Te Pūnaha Ātea (Auckland Space Institute). He is also a former secondary school teacher and has led student trips from NZ to both Nasa and Cern.