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Outer Space. Common Heritage?

Alumnus Daniel Porras

For as long as he can remember, outer space has fascinated Daniel Porras ’07.

As a student in 2006, Porras had an article published in the California Western International Law Journal titled The Common Heritage of Outer Space: Equal Benefits for Most of Mankind. In essence, the paper discussed the concept that outer space is a common space, and it is there for everyone to use.

Fast forward 13 years, and Karl Urban of the AstroGeo Podcast came across the paper and was intrigued. Urban, an experienced science reporter, interviewed Porras, who now works in Geneva as a Space Security Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, where he focusses on political and legal issues surrounding space security.

Urban was interested in exploring what had changed since Porras penned his original article and whether this common heritage still existed.

The 45-minute interview explored how virtually every person has become increasingly dependent on outer space and that this dependency is creating new conflicts amid undefined codes of conduct, which highlight the need for trust, situational awareness, and in large part, severe diplomacy.

“There are two big trends that we need to keep an eye on at the moment,” says Porras “The first is that the whole world is becoming more dependent on outer space. You and I are dependent on space every day for being able to call somebody, being able to send emails as well as just being able to use Google Maps.”

According to Porras, the other actor that is gaining a lot of space dependency is the military, as without satellites, modern warfare can no longer work.

“The military also uses outer space capabilities every day, from basic communication to early warning detection, and guidance systems for missiles,” says Porras.

During the interview, Urban explores these evolving scenarios, asking Porras about the new conflicts in outer space and what disarmament initiatives are being sought amid the challenge of countries failing to agree on a framework for the prevention of weapons in outer space.

This proposed unilateral agreement failed at the U.N., says Porras, as countries found it difficult to define what a space weapon is and how that kind of treaty would be monitored.

“Instead, countries are trying to focus on issues that all states have an interest in,” says Porras. “Like destructive anti-satellite testing, which has the potential to create space debris which inadvertently could have a negative impact on all players.”

Porras, however, remains optimistic, and even as the world enters a somewhat uncertain phase, he feels that if countries can find common ground on single issues, then progress can be made on trust and outer space situational awareness.

“If we can tackle one challenge, even if it’s small, then we can start to move forward, as it has been so long since we’ve been able to adopt anything related to space security,” says Porras. “Then, we can start working on other things and develop more trust, better relations, and then we can start talking about some of the bigger issues.”

Porras’ position on a lot of the ideas he put forward in his 2006 paper has evolved, but he feels that the concept of common heritage is still very much alive.

“A big part of the problem at the moment is that we just don’t have any rules that maximize how we use outer space,” concludes Porras.

“If we set up some basic rules or guidelines, we might start making it easier for everyone to access the common spaces—the common heritage.”

Listen to Daniel Porras’ full interview with Karl Urban here.