Gaining a Share of the Final Frontier

(from 'Technology and Public Particpation',
ed B. Martin, University of Wollongong Press, 1999)

By Alan Marshall


Touted as the final frontier, space expansion has been expressed as the next large scale exploration and settlement project for modern humanity. From such expansion it is supposed that vast resources will be opened up for the general benefit of humankind. If this is so, then it is appropriate to enquire about the participatory mechanisms involved in such a grand project. With respect to this, two particular questions are raised:

  1. what sort of participation exists in the formulation of Solar System resource exploitation policy, and
  2. what sort of participation in the distribution of Solar System resources can be expected?

After examining the avenues for such participation it is concluded that - despite the universalist visions of space developers - advanced space development will only be enacted by a few elite space-capable nations for the near exclusive material benefit of aerospace/mining companies from those nations.

Avenues for Participation in the Final Frontier

When contemplating participation in space exploration and development we might like to consider how to answer the question;

'How did Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon?'

We could answer this question by dealing with the specific technical details of the Apollo-Saturn V launch vehicle that they rode upon and the Newtownian physics that plotted their trajectory. Alternatively we could answer it by acknowledging the social conditions that enabled Armstrong and Aldrin to be the first humans on the lunar surface. Both were men, both were United States citizens, both were white, both were university educated aeronautical engineers and both had served as test-pilots for military aircraft.

When these two men landed on the moon however it was stated over and over again that they were merely representatives of humanity. "We come in peace for all mankind" was the declaration on the plaque that they unveiled upon the moon. Somehow we had all gone with them, whether we were black factory workers from Minneapolis, illiterate peasants from Mongolia or unemployed high-school drop-outs from Melbourne. Despite the fact that the moon landing enterprise had an inbuilt socio-structural bias for placing humans of Armstrong and Aldrin's ilk upon the moon it was claimed that everybody on the Earth participated in this great human feat.

This is how the space programme is sold: all participate in space exploration because its pursuit can be seen by all. Such participation is quite shallow of course. It is nothing but the one-way dispersal of the results of already determined plans. Most members of the human race have no way of being a part of the space effort.

Let's look at another example, this time in the future. Emanating from NASA's department of Advanced Concept Studies is a description by John Mankins about humanity's future in space [1]. After an elucidation of the resource and energy potential laying in wait within the Solar System and after an elaboration about the possible technological spinoffs from future spaceflight, Mankins devotes a section of his article to 'Global Participation'. He says:

Perhaps as exciting from a public standpoint as all of the other technical innovations described above is the concept that in the future, the adventure and the thrill of discovery will be shared directly among millions of individuals across the globe. Combined advances in extremely high speed communications, high quality data compression and processing, virtual reality systems will enable global participation. Again participation here is only one way. NASA does the exploring, you sit around watching the results trickle through on your TV or VDU - if you've got one. As inspiring as these discoveries may be, they are hardly the result of any significant participatory scheme.

There are a number of ways that space development may claim to be participatory in more than just the shallow, one-way sense. Space development is enacted by policies made by elected officials. Through the democracy of the ballot box you may make some choice about varying space policy plans. Apart from the fact that it is nigh on impossible to find in any particular nation a political party with any commitment to enunciating its space policy there is contained within this avenue a myriad of issues that may deflate its claims to deep participation. Do elected officials necessarily enact what they promise? Having found a political party that makes a policy statement on space issues that might significantly differ from competing parties it often the exception to the rule to see it fully implement its policies once elected. Similarly; can governments really claim a mandate for the implementation of all their policies on the basis of election wins? Governments ubiquitously claim the right to implement a huge variety of unrelated policies that were never subjected to specific democratic choice. Thus, if the electorate mainly base their votes on reasons to do with tax policy it hardly warrants the government to pursue a particular space policy. Thus governments may implement space policies with which very few that very few agree.

Another way space development might claim to be participatory is related to the ideals of meritocracy. If you want direct input into space development plans then you must educate and train yourself so as to be a capable player in the aerospace field. Whether you want to design rockets, formulate space law or conduct space experiments it is just a matter of studying hard and working well. Again this avenue is hardly a deep way for encouraging any great degree of participation. Even if all the members of the world's community were able to go to college to study engineering, law or science it is hardly practicable that they all get jobs in the space business. For this to be a real claim to participation there would have to be equal access to education for all humanity and then there would have to be some way for non-space people to interact directly with space people when policy decisions are made.

A third avenue for participation - and the one which is most visible when examining the space programme - is that of advocacy and activism. There are a considerable number of organizations dedicated to the task of campaigning for more state effort to be spent on national space programmes [2]. However, one thing that may be noted here is that despite their continual efforts to galvanize the public towards pro-space plans in an effort to influence government policy, space advocacy groups consistently come up against a barrier of public indifference. It seems that not enough members of the general public actually care strongly about space to actually want to participate in making decisions about it [3]. The existence of this non-participatory feeling within the public might be interpreted as a predictable consequence of the powerlessness that citzens feel with regard to any aspect of national policy-making. Or it may actually be regarded as a form of participation in itself, a negative participation whose existence might be linked to tacit disapproval of the space programme.

Sometimes allied to the advocacy avenue for participation is that of amateur astronautics groups [4]. The people within amateur astronautics do not wish to just sit around waiting for their respective governments to implement space development they are interested in doing it for themselves. Some amateur astronautics groups are gradually building up to orbital rocket potential and are proposing Solar System colonization schemes already. Of course, one may wonder if these plans will ever come about. Even with the help of a few eccentric millionaires it seems unlikely that the resources will be near what a nation state can muster. Much of the time, though, it seems as though capital accumulation is only a minor programme for space advocates and amateur rocketeers. What they (as well as many professional space-workers) really like dealing in is ideology: the ideology of frontierism.

Frontiersmen never die, they just drift off into space. So may the bumpersticker of space expansionists read since for them space development is classed as the final frontier. It is the next and ultimate step in an expansionist saga that has seen Europeans sail to the shores of New World and then drift relentlessly and purposefully westward across continental North America. According to many space frontierists, just as the western frontier opened up new land, new resources, new ideas, new freedoms and new and better technologies during the first centuries of European presence in America, so the coming centuries of space expansion will do the same [5].

It is debatable that these people are basing their ideology upon sound premises. It can be argued, for instance, that at best intellectual, humanitarian and technological progress was quite independent of expansion across the Atlantic and across the West and that at worst such expansion only gave rise to and reflected the oppressiveness of European ideas and technology. An entrenched ethnocentrism is contained within the frontierist attitude to space expansion. There are two great modern stories of westward expansion. One is of glorious and civilised Euro-American discovery and settlement and the other is of imperialist victimisation of colonised peoples. It is questionable whether either of these two stories is adequate when dealing with the many local and enormously heterogeneous histories of North American people, but the point is that space frontierists only ever adopt one of these two great stories: that of grand and glorious European expansion.

In the many writings of space frontierists there is hardly a sentence acknowledging the plight of colonised peoples in the face of such expansion, except when it comes to rebutting the legitimacy of the alternative story. Space frontierists feel safe in reinvigorating the ideas of frontierism because there are no indigenes on the other planets. Thus imperialism can forever more be excised from the final frontier because there will be no victims in its pursuit. In this last point, however, they may be grossly mistaken.

Global Participation in the Final Frontier

If space resource use is encouraged to proceed, space advocates generally feel that there is at least an indirect avenue for global participation since the benefits would soon trickle down to all of humanity including the poor and needy of the world, thus effecting an increase of consumption in these socio-economic spheres. It is evident, however, that the exact nature of development in the Solar System will not be dictated by the humanitarian visions of space frontierists but by the ideologically-inspired subtleties of international law. The main forum for the expression of law in space is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, since this is the treaty signed by all space-capable nations so as to become the most officially sanctioned legal document governing space activities that there is.

The Outer Space Treaty has been in the past seen as a monumental piece of international law drafted by the superpowers of the 1960s in order to enable free and peaceful access to the bodies of the Solar System without fear of land-grabbing annexation but this is not all that the Outer Space Treaty represents. Though it prohibits the appropriation of areas upon extraterrestrial bodies it remains ambiguous with regards to materials contained within such areas. To quote the treaty itself, Article II states:

Outer space, icluding the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation [6]. This might seem to indicate clearly that no one is allowed to claim any particular bit of the extraterrestrial Solar System for themselves. However, many space lawyers and prospective space industrialists that hail from space-capable nations [7] interpret the Outer Space Treaty to mean that while areas of the Solar System bodies are prohibited from being claimed, any material removed from such a body becomes the rightful property of the remover. Under such an interpretation an industrial space colony cannot own the surface upon which it settles and opens operations but as soon as it removes any material from that surface the material becomes the property of the colonial operators.

If one believes that the Free Market will then adequately disseminate these extaterrestrial materials throughout the world via the normal pricing systems then there seems no problem with this interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty. However, since the operators can only get into the position of running an industrial colony on another world through massive state support and investment of public funds it seems incredible to class such extraterrestrial endeavours as operating according to Free Market principles.

When discussing participation in Solar System resource use the issue is not whether you believe in the efficiency of the Free Market versus the egalitarianism of a Planned economy. The point here is that although we all know - and admit - that getting into space is a public affair, the Outer Space Treaty allows for private appropriation once humans are there. The first or 'public' phase is cast as a glorious human pursuit that transcends inter-human and international quarrels. The second or 'private' phase is cast as the incurable and ineffable operation of the Free Market. This 'private' phase uses the smoke screen known as the Free Market and the ambiguity of the Outer Space Treaty to plan for what may as well be labled space imperialism, whereby commonly-owned resources are appropriated by technocratic imperialists [8]. After helping space developers to get to the Solar System bodies and construct industries there, it seems that they will be legally entitled to kick the public in the teeth and claim the resources for themselves.

International Regulation of the Final Frontier

It can be claimed that space resource development does not have to occur this way and that provisions can be made so that space industrialization proceeds to benefit all the people of a nation and all the people of the globe. The US space writer William Hartmann expresses such a hope when he comments that space resource extracting companies might voluntarily pay for commercial rights to exploit extraterrestrial bodies [9]. Hartmann goes on to suggest that Solar System prospecting and mining rights might be sold to an international body. The finances gained could then be put into a World Bank type global fund which would be dedicated to projects that would encourage Third World development. I do not share Hartmann's confidence in the World Bank to promote appropriate resource projects in the Third World. Nor do I share his confidence in voluntary payments by either space companies or nations to approximate any amount which is due to Third World nations. But more importantly, while the Outer Space Treaty calls for space exploration activities to benefit all of humankind the Treaty does not stipulate exactly how this is to be effected. This is no accidental quirk of legal history. The Outer Space Treaty does not ignore defining the nature of space benefit distribution by mistake, something that can be rectified through international resource policy adjustment. Programmes aimed at correcting this very issue have been instigated by Third World countries through the medium of the United Nations but they have failed. Of particular relevance here is the attitude of space-capable nations to the attempted introduction of a new space treaty and also their attitude towards Third World calls for the augmentation of the Outer Space Treaty.

In order to combat the holes and vagaries contained within the Outer Space Treaty a number of non-space-capable nations drafted another treaty under the auspices of the United nations. This new treaty, the 1979 Moon Treaty, utilized the concept of commonality of ownwership of space bodies to build upon the provisions vaguely hinted at in the Outer Space Treaty. The Moon Treaty labels all extraterrestrial bodies the 'Common Heritage of Mankind', thus indicating that no one would be allowed to extract resources without the consent of the global community.

Throughout its lifetime the Moon Treaty has been continually criticised as deleterious to space development by those who seek to develop space [10]. As far as prospective industrialists are concerned any regime that implies that resource use must somehow be regulated to ensure its worldwide sharing is a regime that discourages space expansion. How is development going to occur, say the space developers, if they have to share their profits? Within the space policy circles of space-capable nations and within the space departments of those companies with an interest in developing the space frontier, Solar System expansion is held to be eminantly compatible with the forces of the Free Market and virtually impossible under any regime with a tendency towards distributive justice. With such an attitude prevailing amongst the space-capable nations the Moon Treaty has remained devoid of support - and signatures - except for the small group of mostly Third World nations that originally drafted the Treaty.

Augmenting the Outer Space Treaty for Participation

Given the lack of success in convincing First World nations to sign up to the Moon Treaty the Third World nations tried another tactic: to augment the provisions of the original Outer Space Treaty. The most relevant part of the Outer Space Treaty of concern to Third World nations is Article I which states:

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 [11]. The main issue of significance here for Third World nations has been the meaning of space benefit distribution. In order that the sentiments of Article I be respected Third World nation representatives in the 1980s and 1990s campaigned for a substantive written agrreement to be formulated so that it became clear to the nations of the world exactly how benefits from space use should be dispersed [12].

Fearing that they may be made to enter into a binding agreement that obligated them to distribute space benefits in a way that they did not like, the space-capable nations rejected any proposal to augment the Outer Space Treaty with another regime aimed at bolstering the meaning of Article I. In this vein, space-capable nations have decided that they themselves should be free to dictate how space benefit distribution should be undertaken. To do otherwise, these nations suggest, is to impose upon the sovereignty of a state to formulate and implement its own international cooperation and aid policies. Through such claims of sovereignty about running their own foreign affairs these nations have effectively asserted sovereignty over any resources that they may chance upon in outer space in the future since they may decide for themselves the best ways to distribute these resources. They may implement aid plans that fairly distribute the resources gained from other planets by dispersing them equally to the signatories of the Treaty or they may implement token benefit distribution plans that merely disseminate inspiring photographs of the conquered worlds of the Solar System throughout the globe. Understandably the non-space-capable nations are worried that space benefit distribution will follow more closely the lines of the latter rather than the former example, thus leaving them devoid of any substantial gain. While Third World nations have in the recent past been demanding that some real substance be attached to the sentiments of Article I the nations of the world that are actually in the position to use space resources would like to see the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty remain as skeletal and ambiguous as possible since it allows them to interpret space benefit distribution in as self-interested and miserly way as they desire.

The instigation of an authoritative and uniform regime that dictates exactly the manner that benefits from space use should be distributed might be considered somewhat extreme since not only would it attract little or no support from space-capable nations but it may also lock non-space-capable nations into inappropriate aid plans. The position taken by space-capable nations, namely that they should be free to choose how, and to whom, they distribute space benefits, is just as extreme, however, since it pays no heed to a Treaty whose ideals they confidently professed and willingly signed when the Space Age was young [13]. What is needed is an intermediate approach that stipulates the very real obligations that space- capable nations have to space benefit distribution - given that the Solar System belongs to all - while allowing individual nations to negotiate their own plans of distribution. In short, there should be a formulation of guiding principles that lay down the focus and depth of space distribution for every nation; whether they will be primarily donors of space resources or recipients [14].

In procuring this advice it seems reasonable to be optimistic with regards to the successful negotiation of the focus of space benefit distribution since this refers to the particular areas of help that space-capable nations are able to deliver and to the particular problems that non-space-capable nations are facing. However, it seems equally reasonable to be sceptical when it comes to the issue of the depth of distribution as this refers to a quantitative view of space benefit dispersal. It seems unlikely, given their performance in both space and non-space related matters, that space-capable nations will ever agree to a scheme that places any emphasis on the amount of help that they should commit themselves to, unless that amount is piddlingly small.


It is apparent that if you are interested in space development in the Solar System you can participate in it in only indirect ways. Either:

  1. you get yourself into a position that enables you to formulate space policy,
  2. you make do with being happy about receiving the audio-visual and scientific results from projects that others plan
  3. you campaign for those others to do what you want, or
  4. you follow some misguided effort to do it by yourself.

These realities expose a cavernous deficiency in the way that participation in national space policy is formulated.

This lack of participation in formulating space policy may be paralleled with equally deficient participation with regards to the global distribution of future space benefits. This realm, of international participation, can be regarded as perhaps the most important avenue of participation, not because it necessarily guarantees citizen participation in formulating space policy but because it has the potential (conferred upon it by international law) to decide how the final frontier and its accompanying material benefits may be shared. Though any one nation has myriads of barriers that stand in the way of citizen participation in the formulation of space policy, it could be argued that even if these were resolved in your favour you would soon come up against barriers against participation at the international level. There is within the global realm a variety of conflicting views with regards to space development scenarii and watching these proposed scenarii clash exposes the significantly anti-participatory schemes at work in particular governments. Though couched in terms of peace and inclusivity the legal regimes emerging from the machinations of international politics firmly veer the future of space in an imperialistic direction; where the commonly-owned resources of the Solar System become entrenched in the hands of a technological elite.

At work to glorify such extraterrestrial technocracy is a continuing ideological attachment to frontierism. Space frontierists speak of the rational and renaissance character of space development much as those humanists of old heralded the worldwide expansion of Europeans as the civilised dispersal of an enlightened culture and nothing but. In so doing they become not only the ideologues of a misjudged past and the silencers of alternative histories, but also the progenitors of future imperialism.


1. J.C. Mankins, (1996) 'Space technology in the coming century: Where next?', Ad Astra, Vol 8, No 3, 48-51. The accompanying quote comes from p51.

2. For example the National Space Society and the Planetary Society in the USA, the British Interplanetary Society in the UK, and the National Space Society of Australia.

3. Many proponents for advanced space development would probably cite the considerable interest in space exploration declared by members of the public during polls conducted by various space advocacy groups. Asked if they were interested in space they may have said yes but when asked to rank how important the space programme is compared to other issues the polls may have suggested something significantly different.

4. For example the Pacific Rocket Society in the USA, AspireSpace in the UK and ASRI (Australian Space Research Institute) in Australia.

5. For explorations into the ideas and plans of space frontierists see:

As an example of the frontierist zeal of these - and many other - writers, see how Robert Zubrin, in one short paragraph, neatly ties space frontierism in with social freedom, universal human happiness, the discovery of America, European expansionism, United States history and the rationalism and humanitarian progress that underlies western humanism: "Free societies are the exception in human history, they have only existed in the four centuries of frontier expansion of the West. That history is now over, the frontier that was opened by the voyage of Christopher Columbus is now closed. If the era of western humanist society is not to be seen by future historians as some kind of transitory golden age, a brief shining moment in an otherwise endless chronicle of human misery, then a new frontier must be opened".
(From: R.Zubrin, 1996, 'The promise of Mars', Ad Astra, Vol 8, No 3, p38)

6. Treaty on Principles Covering the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies. United Nations Treaty Series Vol 610.

7 Included in a list of those nations most capable of exploiting Solar System resources in the near future would be the USA, Russia, Japan and the collective nations of western Europe. It is mostly in these nations that plans to actualise resource exploitation programmes are prepared. Included in a list of prospective space industrialists would be the following companies (all of whom have either initiated or sponsored studies about the industrialization of Solar System bodies): Aerospatiale, Bechtel Power Corp, Boeing/McDonnel-Douglas, DLR , Energia, General Dynamics, Lockheed-Martin, Rockwell and Shimizu.

8 The idea that Solar System development will reflect many of the features associated with previously theorized models of imperialism is explored in:
A.Marshall (1995) 'Development and imperialism in space', Space Policy, vol 11, No 1, pp41-52.

9. W.K.Hartmann, (1985) 'The resource base in our Solar System', Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, (ed B.R.Finney and E.M.Jones), University of California Press, Berkeley.

10. For instance see: D.J.O'Donnell and P.R.Harris (1994) 'Is it time to amend or replace the Moon Treaty?', Air and Space Lawyer, vol 9, No 1, 121-143; and E.R.Finch and Al More (1984) Astrobusiness: A Guide to Commerce and Law of Outer space, Praeger Publishers, NY.

11. Treaty on Principles Covering the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies. UNTS Vol 610.

12. See M.Benko and K.U.Schrogl, eds, (1993) International Space Law in the Making, Editions Fronteires, Gif-sur-Yvette; and N.Jasentuliyana (1994)
'Ensuring equal access to the benefits of space technologies for all countries', Space Policy, vol 10, No 1, pp7-18.
Those nations that have campaigned for augmentation of the Outer Space Treaty include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Uruguay and Venezuela.

13. This exposes one particular parallel between Euro-American frontierism of the past and space frontierism of the future that space expansionists have yet to elucidate; that of the betrayel of Treaty agreements with other peoples by the colonising state.

14. The recent United Nations 'Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for the Benefit and in the Interest of All States' might be seen as a tangible example of such guidelines but it merely suggests the vaguest of recommendations towards international cooperative activities in space and reinvigourates the rights of donor nations to donate what they themselves see fit.


I would like to express my gratitude to the members of the Science and Technology Policy Research Group of Wollongong University and to the editor of this book for valuable discussion over some of the points contained within this article.

Martin, B., ed. (1999) Technology & Public Participation, Published by the STS Dept., University of Wollongong


Alan Marshall has a first degree from the University of Wolverhampton, UK, and a second from the Institute of Development Studies, Massey University, NZ, and a third from the University of Wollongong. He is currently a tutor/researcher/writer at the University of Wollongong where his interests revolve around the political philosophy of space development, the literary criticism of science fiction, and the politics and philosophy of environmentalism. Works by him on these subjects adorn both reputable and disreputable periodicals.

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