Space governance is important, tractable and neglected

post by Tobias_Baumann · 2020-01-07T11:24:38.136Z · score: 63 (31 votes) · EA · GW · 17 comments


  What is space governance?
  What is good space governance?
  How to work on this?


I argue that space governance has been overlooked as a potentially promising cause area for longtermist effective altruists. While many uncertainties remain, there is a reasonably strong case that such work is important, time-sensitive, tractable and neglected, and should therefore be part of the longtermist EA portfolio.

I also suggest criteria for what good space governance should look like, and outline possible directions for further work on the topic.

What is space governance?

It’s plausible that humans, or their successors, will eventually be able to colonise space. There are already various Mars missions, and future technological advances might make large-scale colonisation economically feasible.

Space governance encompasses the laws, rules, norms and institutions that structure interactions in space, as well as mechanisms that are used to establish and enforce those. For the purposes of this post, we’re interested in a subset of space governance that I will call long-term space governance. Long-term space governance refers to the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in the large-scale settlement of space.

Space colonization is currently not well covered by existing governance mechanisms. The most significant treaty in internal space law is the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, which establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.[1]

Subsequent efforts to establish more comprehensive rules, such as the Moon Treaty (which grants jurisdiction over celestial bodies to the international community), have largely failed to achieve widespread assent. Therefore, we currently lack a coherent global framework for space governance. As of now, space is a free-for-all.[2] This is particularly true for challenges that arise in the context of humanity expanding beyond Earth: large-scale settlements in space are currently infeasible, so much of the existing debate centers on more immediate concerns (e.g. related to satellites or exploration of space).

The work I have in mind aims to replace the current state of ambiguity with a coherent framework of (long-term) space governance that ensures good outcomes if and when large-scale space colonisation becomes feasible. In the following, I will argue that such work is important, tractable, and neglected.


The case for the importance of space governance is straightforward: it directly affects astronomical stakes. On a cosmic scale, Earth is a tiny point in a vast universe containing hundreds of billions of galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, already contains at least 100 billion planets. So, while space governance is not fundamentally different from existing governance problems, it takes place on a scale never before seen in human history.

Also, the range of possible outcomes is huge. The right space governance regime could enable an outcome that is very good from (almost) every perspective - through positive-sum cooperation and compromise between the relevant actors, combined with the vast amount of resources that an intergalactic civilisation can access. (Cf. Eric Drexler’s Paretotopia [? · GW].) On the other side of the spectrum, escalating conflicts and warfare on a cosmic level could cause actors to inflict unimaginable horrors on each other, resulting in suffering on an astronomical scale.

That said, one could object that anything we can do now will be overturned in the future, rendering our efforts irrelevant. In particular, one might expect transformative AI to happen relatively soon (which may be the trigger for large-scale space colonisation), and powerful future AI systems may not be bound by laws (or other aspects of governance) in the same way as humans. This is why we should (so the argument goes) instead focus on shaping the impacts of transformative AI.

While this is a possibility, I think it is at least plausible that laws and governance paradigms are long-lasting, or that the final outcome is path-dependent on establishing good space governance early on. Depending on what the transition to transformative AI looks like, there is at least a significant chance that existing laws or institutions remain relevant, or set a direct precedent. At first glance, this seems to apply to gradual, distributed transitions in particular.[3] (Also, a) similar objections apply to many attempts to improve the long-term future, and b) I do not make the strong claim that space governance is more important than directly shaping the impacts of transformative AI.)

A related objection is that it may not be urgent to work on space governance now, as we can delegate the question of how to govern space to (hopefully) more capable and more informed successors (whether artificial or human). This is especially true if (large-scale) space colonisation is unlikely to happen soon – i.e., if our spacefaring activities will, for the foreseeable future, be limited to exploration.

But I would, again, argue that establishing good space governance is plausibly time-sensitive. It seems at least possible that our civilisation will start settling other planets in the not-too-distant future – say, within the next centuries.

One concrete reason why space governance is time-sensitive is that enforcing positive-sum agreements may become more difficult or impossible once civilisation has already spread into space, due to massive cosmic distances. For instance, it may be the case that agreements can only be enforced if the required surveillance and enforcement mechanisms are “built into” the colonisation process and form an integral part of each colony from the outset (so that communication or interaction over vast distances is not necessary). The best option, therefore, would be to settle on a fair governance paradigm before space colonisation begins.

I would also note that the current state of ambiguity seems bad for many reasons. It could induce race dynamics, where actors rush to claim resources without regard for risks, and is likely to result in serious conflict. Therefore, improving space governance may also help reduce the risk of great power war.


It seems fairly clear to us what levers we can pull on to improve space governance. We can do research on what governance framework we want, and then shape expert discourse, or lobby for the right laws and international conventions. (I will elaborate on this below.) Also, work on space governance does not hinge on particular assumptions about the future, other than large-scale space colonisation being sufficiently plausible.

I do not yet have a good sense of how tractable it is to implement space governance improvements. One potential problem is that space governance is mainly shaped by large space-faring nations (US, China, Russia, EU, India). Since they often seem to have competing interests in this domain, an agreement might be very hard to reach, especially if relationships are strained for reasons unrelated to space governance. (Perhaps this is why there has not been much progress for a long time.)

Fortunately, when it comes to long-term space governance, we may be able to pull the rope sideways since competing state interests mostly relate to short-term issues. In addition, nonstate interests (mainly civil society and commercial actors) in space seem quite small at this point, which makes it more plausible that targeted work could have an outsized impact. It is easier to have a significant influence while there aren’t yet strong vested interests. (The flipside of this argument is that there may not be much interest in discussing long-term issues in the various governments.)


There is some work on space law and space governance (e.g. by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space), but our impression is that this is mostly focused on short-term issues. I am not aware of any actors doing systematic work or advocacy regarding the long-term concerns outlined in this post, although the need for a coherent space governance framework has been pointed out (e.g. 1, 2).

What is good space governance?

So far, I bracketed the question of what kind of space governance regime I would like to see. This is because the long-term effects of governance regimes are hard to predict, and further research is needed to be confident in any particular idea. Even abstracting away from practical and political constraints, it’s not clear what the ideal governance paradigm would be. Nevertheless, I would like to offer some preliminary thoughts.

A top priority is to reduce the risk of major conflict. Space warfare is not only a massive waste of resources, but might also result in moral atrocities, similar to past wars - but on an astronomical scale. In other words, it is a potential s-risk. It is clear that we would much prefer a governance regime that promotes positive-sum cooperation and compromise.

More specifically, we would like to ensure cosmic rule of law. This entails an adequate level of external control - through enforcement of certain laws, norms, and agreements - over what actors in space are (and are not) allowed to do. It should be possible to stop bad actors from causing a lot of harm: we should prevent cosmic anarchy.

This is challenging because vast distances in space will likely be an obstacle to effective enforcement. Space is, in a nutshell, an endless desert with oases that are extremely far apart from each other. The closest star to Earth is 4.3 light years away, resulting in a round-trip latency of 8.6 years even if light-speed communication and transport are possible. The closest galaxy is approximately 2.5 million light years away, rendering conventional enforcement impossible.

I think it is also important to avoid a laissez-faire space governance paradigm, where each actor owns a certain fraction of space and can do what they want within their territory. Such property rights would arguably work for commercial and selfish interests, and may well be the arrangement that would emerge by default. However, this scenario is problematic (especially from an s-risk perspective) because it would be impossible to stop moral catastrophes.

What would be a good space governance paradigm? Here are some first-pass ideas (assuming a sufficient degree of enforceability):

In any case, it would arguably be good to settle on a clear paradigm before large-scale space colonisation becomes feasible. Ideally, humanity would first settle on a fair compromise between everyone’s values and interests, and then colonise space according to this compromise. (But this would require a massive improvement in the (general) governance situation of our civilisation, which is arguably not realistic in the foreseeable future.)

How to work on this?

As there hasn’t been much work on long-term space governance, a top priority is further research. I suggest the following directions:

In addition, I recommend that more people build up expertise or even consider a career in space governance. Political science, international relations, and law with a focus on space governance are particularly relevant. I have not considered career options in detail, but plausible paths include academic careers in these fields, careers in relevant governments, think-tanks, or international organisations, as well as careers at NewSpace companies. I don’t think many people in the community should pursue this path, but it could be a very promising option for those who are passionate about the topic.


Stefan Torges contributed significantly to this post through extensive comments, inputs and suggestions.

I’d also like to thank Lukas Gloor and Jesse Clifton for comments on an earlier draft of this text.

  1. Following the above definition, space law is an important aspect of space governance, but the latter is broader in scope. ↩︎

  2. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 explicitly allows US citizens and industries to "engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources". It is debated whether this constitutes a claim of sovereignty (in violation of the Outer Space Treaty). ↩︎

  3. An in-depth discussion of the plausibility of different AI scenarios and how they affect space colonization is beyond the scope of this text. ↩︎


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Ozzie Gooen (oagr) · 2020-01-16T07:08:26.521Z · score: 30 (14 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

+1 for a serious suggestion of an intervention that to me is pretty novel to EA. I feel like we should be considering a larger class of options than we typically have. Space governance seems like a reasonable option to consider to me.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2020-01-07T19:17:43.199Z · score: 22 (9 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure where this falls exactly between importance and tractability, but I think one concern is that any work we do on space governance now is likely to be washed out by later, near-term, and more powerful forces in the future.

My thinking on this is by analogy to previous developments in frontier governance. For example, in the history of the United States, it was common to form treaties with native peoples and exist with them relatively peacefully right up until the native people had resources the colonists/settlers/government wanted badly enough that they found expedience excuses to ignore the treaties, such as by fabricating treaty violations to allow ignoring them or just outright using force against a weaker entity.

And that's just to consider how governance becomes fluid when one entity far out powers another. Equally powered entities have their own methods of renegotiating for what is presently desirable, past agreement be damned.

On the other hand some things have stuck well. For example, even if actors sometimes violate them, international rules of war are often at least nominally respected and effort is put into punishing (some of) those who violate those rules. As ever, exceptions are made for those powerful enough to be beyond the reach of other actors to impose their will by force.

All of this makes me somewhat pessimistic that we can expect to do much to have a strong, positive influence on space governance.

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-01-10T07:12:01.697Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I wrote a little bit about space governance [EA · GW], but was demotivated exactly because of these kind of concerns.

comment by Larks · 2020-01-17T01:57:49.325Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

One example might be that early on, colonies are extremely reliant on the home world (as the ISS is today) so a lot of central control is exerted by earth. Later on the large distances involve make both aid and (many forms of) coercion much more difficult, so much more decentralisation and independence seem likely. From our vantage point it seems unlikely if we can do much to influence the latter given we first have to go through the radically different former.

comment by Charlotte (CharlotteSiegmann) · 2020-01-15T23:17:14.129Z · score: 14 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think I updated towards "maybe its useful if this cause area would be analysed in great depth". Is this planned at the moment? Perhaps interviewing experts etc.

Do you think that it might be important to develop clear guidelines what is meant with the first article of the outer space treaty: "The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind. "

The German Professor for Space Law Stephan Hobe says on this German podcast that it is really important to define this right. Does this mean that countries have to give away a certain amount of their space surplus? do we include future generations in mankind? Do we include people on other planets?

comment by MichaelA · 2020-05-23T08:04:18.655Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

(Just FYI, your comment doesn’t seem to have a link to the podcast mentioned.)

comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2020-01-11T06:55:58.443Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

All else equal, would you prefer to see marginal dollars invested in fundamental research in this area (e.g., legal scholarship on space property law from an EA perspective) or advocacy (building better institutions or more political support for improved space governance)? I kinda suspect we're more limited by the latter currently.

comment by Lukas_Finnveden · 2020-07-10T15:34:45.485Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Why is that? I don't know much about the area, but my impression is that we currently don't know what space governance would be good from an EA perspective, so we can't advocate for any specific improvement. Advocating for more generic research into space-governance would probably be net-positive, but it seems a lot less leveraged than having EAs look into the area, since I expect longtermists to have different priorities and pay attention to different things (e.g. that laws should be robust to vastly improved technology, and that colonization of other solar systems matter more than asteroid mining despite being further away in time).

comment by Niel_Bowerman · 2020-07-09T19:36:51.441Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The importance of this and related topics is premised on humanity's ability to achieve interstellar travel and settle other solar systems. Nick Beckstead did a shallow investigation into this question back in 2014, which didn't find any knockdown arguments against. Posting this here mainly as I haven't seen some of these arguments discussed in the wider community much.

comment by Tobias_Baumann · 2020-07-10T12:17:19.376Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I also recently wrote up some thoughts on this question, though I didn't reach a clear conclusion either.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2020-01-11T06:39:21.423Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is challenging because vast distances in space will likely be an obstacle to effective enforcement. Space is, in a nutshell, an endless desert with oases that are extremely far apart from each other. The closest star to Earth is 4.3 light years away, resulting in a round-trip latency of 8.6 years even if light-speed communication and transport are possible. The closest galaxy is approximately 2.5 million light years away, rendering conventional enforcement impossible.

Reminds me of an interesting article which appeared in Scientific American recently.

Anyway I thought this was a good post. With regard to tractability, I think it's possible that as we start to colonize space, the necessity of space governance may become apparent -- perhaps in a sudden & unexpected way. If political leaders are looking for solutions at that time, it's probably a good thing if there are proposals available which have been forged through an extensive & lively debate (as opposed to some kind of hastily composed emergency measure which ends up locking us into a suboptimal trajectory).

Another thought: If you think high quality political conversations are unusually difficult to have right now, but this situation might improve in the future, that could be an argument for delaying widespread public discussion of high-impact political topics to some future time when the situation has improved. (No reason not to think about such topics privately though.)

comment by Aidan O'Gara · 2020-01-07T22:49:17.681Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

One tractable and useful line of research at this point could be summarizing histories of colonizations and frontier explorations, and extrapolating lessons for space colonization.

Has there been any work here?

comment by Jamie_Harris · 2020-06-26T08:48:50.145Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I wanted to drop this link here as I just came across it and it seems highly relevant to this post: Marko Kovic, "Risks of space colonization" (2020). It too, was published in January 2020, so wasn't sure if you were aware of it or not..

Relevant extracts from the abstract and conclusion:

"In this article, I present an overview of some major risks of space colonization, categorized as prioritization risks, risks of inadvertent moral catastrophes, and security risks. These risks could result in enormous disvalue, putting into question the overall moral benefit of space colonization. In practice, however, the question of whether space colonization is a net benefit is probably irrelevant since colonization efforts are already underway."

"Space colonization is already the implicit goal of public as well as private space-related ventures and ambitions, and a scenario in which the global community decides to ban all space colonization activity is unrealistic, regardless of what a hypothetical eventual philosophical consensus on the question might look like. Instead, future efforts in the analysis of space colonization-related risks should be directed at or combined with efforts to create a meaningful governance framework aimed at mitigating the risks of space colonization. One potential approach for creating the conceptual foundation for such a governance framework is to reverse-engineer the rules and principles that lead to the best long-term future in terms of wellbeing and space colonization. Such an approach is possible in the case of space colonization because the general trajectory of successful, desirable space colonization that maximizes future wellbeing can be identified a priori."

comment by Tobias_Baumann · 2020-06-26T11:20:53.656Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey Jamie, thanks for the pointer! I wasn't aware of this.

Another relevant critique of whether colonisation is a good idea is Daniel Deudney's new book Dark Skies.

I myself have also written up some more thoughts on space colonisation in the meantime and have become more sceptical about the possibility of large-scale space settlement happening anytime soon.

comment by vascoamaralgrilo · 2020-09-04T17:42:19.939Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I was excited to read this post because Space in seldom mentioned in the EA movement, and I am about to complete my MSc thesis in Aerospace Engineering. However, I believe a Space Law background would be more suitable for the research suggested above.

I would appreciate if someone could give insight into effective careers for which an Aerospace Engineering background could be useful (at least as a starting point).

comment by gavintaylor · 2020-06-25T13:10:24.725Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Would policies to manage orbital space debris be a good candidate for short-term work in this area, particularly if they can be directed at preventing the tail risk scenarios such as run-away collision cascades (Kurzgesagt has a cute video on this)? Although larger pieces of space debris are tracked and there are some efforts currently being taken to test debris removal methods, it seems like this could be suffer from free-rider problem in the same way international climate change policy does (i.e. a lot countries are scaling up their space programs, but most may rely on the US to take the lead on debris management).

In the event that there is a collision cascade it also seems like it could create a weak form of the future trajectory lock-in scenario that Ord describes in the Precipice, in that humanity would be 'locked-out' of spacefaring (and satellite usage) for as long as it took to clean up the junk or until enough of it naturally fell out of orbit (possibly centuries).

comment by cole_haus · 2020-01-13T00:10:53.876Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This isn't central to the topic, but Paul Krugman's The Theory of Interstellar Trade is fun and a bit related.