Space Governance for the 21st Century: Balancing Space Development with Sustainability

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The development of space is occurring in new ways and at an accelerated pace compared to even just a decade ago. As new and greater volumes of space activities, like large constellations of small satellites, space traffic management, and on orbit rendezvous, proximity, servicing, and assembly operations become routine, new international governance will be necessary to balance the development of space with space sustainability. While some international space governance does exist, it is poorly suited to govern new space activities and the environmental threats posed by space development. The need for new governance is well documented, yet the international community, and specifically the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), has been unable to organize around space governance and produce effective international governance measures.

This research will compare governance regimes of the air, maritime, and internet domains to understand how stakeholders and international organisations approach governance of a global commons. Through the examination of the International Maritime Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, and the multistakeholder group responsible for internet governance this research will draw insight into the organisational structures, processes, tools, and techniques that aid in the creation of international governance to inform new governance for space.

Findings offer insight into the organisational qualities, governance tools, and necessary change needed to govern space more effectively. First, despite differences across case studies, there are key features of effective international governance present in each. Each system of governance is designed based on unique features and qualities of that domain and its stakeholders. Still, decision-making processes, membership participation, enforcement, and keeping pace with new technology all play central roles in effective international governance.

Proper consensus decision-making can play an outsized role in whether a forum can advance governance or not. The case studies make clear that to properly use consensus as a decision-making approach requires thoughtful consideration of the increased transaction costs weighed against necessary agreement compliance. For example, not all governance outputs require a high degree of compliance to be effective and therefore do not justify higher transaction costs associated with strict consensus processes. Similarly, thoughtful use of consensus also requires evaluating where in the diplomatic process consensus is required. Not every diplomatic decision requires full consensus. Yet, COPUOS currently does not adjust its decision-making approach based on output or where in the diplomatic process it requires consensus, which has allowed the forum's use of consensus to hinder the development of new governance.

Another finding is that strong governance leverages a multitude of governance tools. Treaties are an important governance measure, but so too are standards and recommended practices, guidelines, codes, performance-based measures, audit schemes, scoping exercises, and educational resources, among other tools. Many of the emerging space activities will continue to evolve quickly, which requires producing governance in a timely manner and continuous evolution of agreements. In each case study, evolving activities were governed by a spectrum of measures that allowed the IO to affect member behaviour quickly and overtime through complementary outputs.

Each case study made clear that effective governance requires constant work across multiple workstreams, yet COPUOS is a small three body organisation with too few resources to increase work cadence or volume. A larger secretariat and the capacity to create new subcommittees or working groups is likely to aid space governance. COPUOS will require major changes to accommodate space governance needs. Finally, this research offers recommendations for future research capable of exploring additional possible solutions to existing space governance problems.
Date of Award1 Dec 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMark Hilborne (Supervisor) & Greg Kennedy (Supervisor)

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