Insight - SWF’s Space Sustainability Research Initiative

Friday, February 10, 2023

In the fifteen years since Secure World Foundation began focusing on space sustainability, the issue has successfully gained widespread attention and deliberative action by the global space community. In 2019, the Guidelines on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities were finalized at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Since then, additional initiatives include the Space Sustainability Rating, the Net Zero Space initiative, and a myriad of other related actions across a diverse field of organizations and fora. 

Today, most actors in the space domain are already aware of the basic concepts of space sustainability – including the idea that outer space is a shared domain requiring coordination and cooperation, the prevalence of space debris, the risk of further debris creation through intentional or negligent behavior, and similar widely-shared understandings. 

However, more fundamental concepts that underpin space sustainability — including the economics of a commons and different types of governance models — are much less understood. These fundamentally different understandings and viewpoints have been, and will continue to be, obstacles in the path toward space sustainability. 

Further effort is needed to further understand and discuss these fundamental concepts. The Secure World Foundation realized the need for non-partisan and scholarly research on these basic concepts underpinning space sustainability. In 2022, we established the SWF Space Sustainability Research Fellows program to explore fundamental questions underpinning space sustainability and we were proud to welcome our first two Research Fellows as part of this program.

Claire Oto, a Senior Policy Analyst at the University of Virginia's National Security Policy Center, with a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Politics from the University of California, San Diego, and a Masters of Public Policy in Space and National Security from George Washington University, explored issues of polycentric decision-making in global space governance. The research questions posed to Claire included: 

  • How does the existing body of literature on polycentric governance inform how we should be approaching space governance? 
  • What are the missing mechanisms, institutions, and stakeholders that need to be created or brought into the discussion? 
  • What should be the priority in applying polycentric governance concepts in near-term work to bolster space governance and enhance long-term sustainability, safety, and security of outer space?

Daniel Patton, an Environmental Specialist in Huntsville, Alabama, with a Bachelor's degree in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia, and a Masters in Natural Resources From Virginia Tech, was tasked with developing a better understanding of the question, “Is Outer Space a Global Commons?” The research questions posed to Daniel included:

  • What does the phrase ‘Space as a Global Commons’ mean? 
  • Is outer space actually a ‘global commons’ or a ‘common pool resource’?
  • Which actors refer to outer space using these terms? 
  • How can concepts from the governance of the commons & common pool resources productively inform various space policy discussions? 
  • Are there approaches from the governance of other shared domains (air, sea, cyber, Antarctica, the environment) that might be usefully transposed to space governance? 
  • What concepts from those shared domains do not translate well to outer space? 
  • What happens when some actors see space as a commons, while others do not? 

Claire and Daniel, the inaugural cohort of Space Sustainability Research Fellows, have completed their research. SWF will publish their reports on our website in the coming weeks, in advance of a SWF-hosted webinar to feature them and their work. The webinar, scheduled for Monday, March 6, will feature both  Clair and Daniel explaining and discussing the research, including their findings and conclusions. We hope this research will help advance understanding of these fundamental issues and in turn enable discussions of ways to improve space governance and the long-term sustainability of space activities. 

Applications for this year’s Space Sustainability Research Fellows will be posted in early May.

Register for the March 6 webinar at our Eventbrite page:

SWF Space Law Advisor Christopher Johnson can be contacted at for more information.

Last updated on June 30, 2023