In 1957, the success of Sputnik 1 launched an ever-evolving discussion of how we conduct ourselves in outer space. Within two years, amidst growing tensions between the USSR and the United States, the United Nations formed the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. By 1967, its members signed the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty became the first true framework for international space law, including principles governing the exploration and use of outer space, the moon, and other celestial bodies.
Today, technological advancements, renewed commercial interest, and concerns about climate change have prompted reaffirmations of global efforts in space. Through its Office for Outer Space Affairs, the U.N. continues to facilitate an international understanding of what space has to offer us and our responsibilities as its explorers.
A case in point is the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, which intersect with the aims of space industry leaders in multiple ways. As regular human spaceflight steadily approaches, I believe the goals can serve as a guiding light for a thriving space economy.
THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
Seventeen SDGs were an integral part of the 2030 Agenda adopted by all U.N. member states in 2015. Considered an “urgent call for action,” the goals function as a blueprint for global partnerships to end poverty, reduce inequality, protect the planet, and take more steps toward a better tomorrow for humankind.
As world leaders pledged their support for the agenda, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “We suffer no illusions of the challenges ahead. But we understand this is something that we must commit ourselves to. Because in doing so, we recognize that our most basic bond—our common humanity—compels us to act.”
The U.N. hopes to fully implement its SDGs by 2030, but its underlying ethos is timeless. The declaration is a clear-eyed, ambitious document, charting a path for forming a sustainable society that properly values its people, environment, and institutions. For those in NewSpace, it embodies the forward-thinking mindset necessary to establish a lasting space-based civilization.
I believe many of the 169 targets specified in the SDGs can be reached using the technology, innovation, and power of space organizations. Others can serve as useful prompts for imagining a fairer future in the industry.
SPACE ENDEAVORS HELP ACHIEVE THE SDGS
The unknowns of space foster a collaborative spirit among governments, researchers, designers, and investors, which can go a long way in realizing the SDGs. Included in the U.N.’s 2030 agenda are key opportunities for space actors to contribute to the mitigation of environmental disasters, foster peace, and help save lives.
Taking Climate Action: SDG 13
SDG 13 demands action to combat climate change on Earth and its inhabitants. Satellite and surveillance technology enabled by space exploration is essential in climate monitoring, weather forecasting, disaster management, and search and rescue operations. This manifests through public and private organizations, making climate data accessible to researchers around the world through programs like Climate TRACE.
Fostering Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: SDG 16
Preventing conflict and holding institutions accountable are endless endeavors. The U.N. itself plays a pivotal role in guiding legal discussions around the use of space, successfully negotiating numerous treaties since the 1950s. As the new Space Age expands, companies can submit any and all spacecraft to the Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Doing so helps trace responsibility in the event of damage to launched objects, the creation of space debris, or unexpected collisions.
Supporting Good Health and Well-Being: SDG 3
Ensuring the health of everyone is a high priority for any functioning society. The extreme environment beyond Earth’s atmosphere prompts medical innovation by its very nature. Already, keeping astronauts safe far from home has led to various spinoff technologies in health care. Onboard the International Space Station, researchers study common diseases, test the efficacy of drug therapies, and experiment with 3D bioprinting.
WHAT THE SPACE INDUSTRY CAN LEARN FROM THE SDGS
Achievements in space exploration have always signaled progress. They demonstrate an intense shared sense of awe that upon seeing Earth as a “pale blue dot,” many astronauts experience the Overview Effect—a shift in awareness that engenders a deeper connection with all humankind. However, the field struggles to realize some of its core values. This is where the industry’s future could benefit from hewing close to SDGs like Gender Equality and Responsible Consumption and Production.
In the United States, only 11.2% of aerospace engineers are women. In the U.K., women are significantly underrepresented in the space sector, making up only 29% of the workforce in 2020. Similar disparities exist in other countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
To close the gender gap, I believe NewSpace should support initiatives like UNOOSA’s Space4Women program, which connects young women in STEM with a network of accomplished female mentors in their respective fields. Industry leaders can also sign the Panel Parity Pledge or create similar guidelines for their institutions to guarantee that women leaders are equally represented in important discussions.
As for responsible consumption and production, there is always room for improvement. While space stations and habitat models for Mars can influence eco-friendly construction on Earth, space travel comes with its own sustainability concerns. For example, space debris in lower Earth orbit has become a pressing issue, exacerbated by the advent of satellite mega-constellations. Tackling space junk with SDG 12 in mind could guarantee an accessible and safe lower Earth orbit for future generations.
SDGS AND THE FUTURE OF SPACE
The U.N.’s SDGs have wide-ranging implications for every economic sector, and there are many ways the space industry can contribute to a thriving society and bring the benefits of space exploration to all. I believe adopting even a handful of the goals could result in a stronger and more exciting future for our spacefaring economy. As astronauts gear up for lengthy visits to the moon and Mars this century, it is more important than ever to think deeply about the values we send along on those journeys.
Dylan Taylor is the Chairman & CEO of Voyager Space Holdings.