Congested, Contested, and Competitive: Are We Running Out of Room in Outer Space?

Urban Resilience Project
7 min readAug 19, 2021

by Erik Nordman

The billionaires’ race to space has grabbed headlines this summer. Richard Branson’s flight to the edge of space — followed by that of Jeff Bezos — has all the danger and glamor you’d want in a summer spectacle. But space is more than just a potential tourist destination or a publicity stunt. Space is critical to modern life on Earth. Today, policy makers from around the world are finding ways to sustain and manage our shared space resources. And they are drawing on ideas that are thousands of years old.

Many countries, including the European Union and its member states, consider outer space to be a global commons. A commons is a shared resource that, if left unmanaged, can be depleted. It is also difficult to exclude users from accessing a commons. Therefore, unmanaged commons tend to be overused — a condition known as the “tragedy of the commons.” For much of the 20th century, most experts assumed that selfish motives would inevitably drive users to deplete a commons. The experts thought that only privatization or government regulations could protect these shared resources. A commons was seen as some kind of failure of property rights, an aberration that was doomed to fail.

However, political scientist Elinor Ostrom questioned this idea. During her five-decade career, Ostrom observed communities around the world, from fishers to foresters to farmers, who collaborated to manage their shared resources. The communities she studied sustained their commons without resorting to privatization or waiting for government to impose regulations on them. Instead, the community created and enforced its own set of rules.

Not every community Ostrom studied was successful in managing its commons, but she found patterns in the successes and failures. She distilled these into a set of eight design principles for managing a commons. These include:

· Setting clear social and physical boundaries;

· Giving resource users a voice in rule-making; and

· Having graduated penalties for rule breakers.

Managing a commons relies on formal and informal rules, norms, and behavioral expectations — things Ostrom called institutions. The Nobel committee awarded Ostrom the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for her “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.”

Although many countries consider space — like Antarctica — to be a global commons, international law does not recognize it as such. None of the relevant treaties legally define any elements of space as a commons. The United States has been consistent in its objection to using the “commons” terminology with regards to space. In practice, however, space exhibits the traits of a commons — it is shared, it can be depleted or degraded, and it is hard to exclude users from.

A new report from the United Nations notes that space is “becoming increasingly congested, contested and competitive…Outer space is also becoming increasingly commercialized, resulting in a rapid increase in the number and diversity of actors operating in outer space as well as the number of objects in orbit.” More objects in space means more opportunities for collisions. Collisions create space debris which can lead to more collisions, and so on.

Space activities have almost always been linked to the military. Space treaties allow for “dual use” technologies. For example, satellites that observe forest fires and floods can also observe troop movements and other military activities. However, the UN reports that space is becoming “a new frontier of competition among major military powers.” So many of our daily activities, from credit card transactions to GPS directions, rely on satellites. The loss of a key satellite, whether by accidental collision or intentional aggression, could cause significant harms to people on Earth. Space might seem vast, but the actual useable part of space is relatively limited — and could be overexploited.

It turns out that the fishers, foresters, and farmers that Ostrom studied have insights that apply to managing space commons as well. Many of those same design principles for governing terrestrial commons also apply in space. And policy makers are taking note. The United Nations’ new report on space governance notes that, although treaties and formal policies are important, most of the day-to-day management of space is through these informal channels of norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior. Norms and behavioral expectations can be more adaptable, especially in rapidly changing technical and physical environment of space.

Two of Ostrom’s design principles relate to the social boundaries of the commons (who has access) and specify that those affected by the rules should have a say in rule-making. For decades, outer space was the domain of just a few space-faring countries, especially the US and Russia. As access to space has improved, many more countries are launching satellites — and they demand a voice. But it’s not only nations clamoring for a say: the private sector also plays a major role in space activities now, as recent space launches show.

The institutions around space governance are adapting to include these new players. “All space stakeholders, not just the major and emerging space powers,” the RAND Corporation wrote in its response to the UN report, “must first understand the problems facing the New Space Era and the potential tragedy of the commons that applies, or there will be little incentive for change.”

Another design principle deals with penalizing bad actors. For example, China intentionally destroyed an old, malfunctioning weather satellite in 2007. The destruction was not merely removing a defunct space object — it was to show that China had the military capacity to take out a rival’s satellite as well. The anti-satellite missile test created a tremendous amount of space debris. It violated long-established norms of behavior. The action was also out of line with the Outer Space Treaty, which says that countries have an obligation to conduct activities “with due regard and avoid generating “harmful contamination” of the space environment. The international space community needed to let China, and the world, know that this type of activity was unacceptable. A US government official I spoke with explained how the US led the global response to China’s actions:

“So as an international community, there was a lot of pressure put on China saying, ‘Hey this is not OK, you’ve generated a lot of debris, you weren’t transparent about it, we’re now all having to figure out as a global community how to deal with this global threat, if you will, of the space debris.’” The US policy, according to the state department official, is to ensure that the international community supports responsible conduct in space. The most effective way to prevent a country from going rogue and violating these expectations “is a cry from the international community and almost a public shaming as if, ‘What were you thinking? You’re ruining it for all of us.’”

There is no global government to impose penalties on bad actors. So, any repercussions must come from the community itself. But will that be sufficient to ensure the sustainability of a global commons like outer space?

The same question might be said of another global commons — our climate system. The Paris Agreement on climate change largely aligns with Ostrom’s design principles. Instead of a single, legally binding policy, it encourages countries to voluntarily reduce their carbon emissions as best they can relative to their peers. Nations hold one another responsible for meeting their pledges. Many countries are now pledging more ambitious emissions cuts and even net-zero emissions. But whether they will follow through is still an open question.

As Ostrom often noted, there are “no panaceas” for resolving the complex challenges of governing a commons. With complexity comes surprises and unanticipated impacts. Ostrom’s design principles are likewise no panacea, but they can point us in the right direction. We are not doomed to overuse outer space, but it can be depleted if we are not careful. The lessons learned by ordinary farmers and fishers who successfully managed their commons will once again be learned by those governing outer space.

Dr. Erik Nordman is Professor of Natural Resources Management and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Grand Valley State University, Michigan, and an Affiliate Scholar at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop. Nordman has written on a wide variety of environmental topics, from urban stormwater management and land preservation to renewable energy. His work has also appeared in mass-market publications such as Quartz, The Conversation, and Bridge (a Michigan public affairs magazine). Nordman holds an MS in forest ecosystem management and a PhD in natural resource policy and economics, both from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse University. He served as a Fulbright Scholar and visiting professor at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, 2012–13. His publications are available at:

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

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