International experts call for rules for commercial research in space

"If space flight is funded primarily or largely by private companies like Blue Origin [and] SpaceX, what rules do they need to follow?” University of Alberta law professor Timothy Caulfield asks.

Private companies have begun sending flights to space, a frontier previously accessed primarily by publicly funded organizations. To address ethical issues with commercial spaceflight, international experts came together to develop a framework for private research in space.

In 2022, an international group of experts met at the Banbury Center of Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in Lloyd Harbour, New York. The participants co-authored a paper that calls for ethical rules in commercial spaceflight. The paper proposes establishing an ethical framework grounded in “social responsibility, scientific excellence, proportionality, and global stewardship,” the paper said.

Timothy Caulfield is the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a professor in the University of Alberta’s faculty of law. He has a focused interest in research ethics. Caulfield was a primary organizer of the meeting at the Banbury Center.

“I have a personal fascination in space flight and the history of space flight. So this was a topic that I came to both as a result of my academic life [and as] a topic that I personally find fascinating and intriguing.”

Caulfield asks what rules private companies need to follow

Private citizens or corporations that collect data or research in space pose unique ethical concerns, Caulfield said. Previously, space travel was “largely funded by the public purse.” For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) receives its funding from the United States government. Publicly funded research has to follow certain rules and there is a degree of oversight, Caulfield explained.

But, “if space flight is funded primarily or largely by private companies like Blue Origin [and] SpaceX, what rules do they need to follow?” 

Caulfield noted some in-flight research topics of interest, such as the effect of microgravity on the human body or impact of space travel on the optic nerve. One issue with private companies funding research is they do not have to publicly share their findings, Caulfield said.

”If we share data, we’re more likely to advance knowledge. And so when you’re talking about a mix between public and private companies, maybe there’s not going to be as much sharing. The company has shareholders that they’re responsible to. Is that going to have an impact on how data is shared?”

“What we want to do is create a norm where transparency is the expectation,” Caulfield says

Although companies may have privately paid for the research, Caulfield said they should share information that would broadly benefit society. As well, according to Caulfield, crafting an international norm “creates a pressure and expectation that standards are going to be met.”

“What we want to do is create a norm where transparency is the expectation. I think that this benefits the companies to follow these norms for liability reasons. If something goes sideways, there’s a [public relations] element to it.”

Caulfield referenced the Titan submersible made by OceanGate Expeditions, which imploded on June 18 while taking five tourists to see the site of the Titanic. He said this event created international controversy “focused on norms.” 

“And because [OceanGate Expeditions] didn’t, it had a really adverse impact. Not only on that specific company, but I think the entire industry. Space would be way more expensive — it would even be more of a significant impact.”

Caulfield emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusion in ethical space research

The importance Caulfield placed on societal norms extends to the issue of inclusivity in ethical space travel. He emphasized the importance of diversity in the space initiative, for astronauts and people on the ground.

“This has been for too long dominated by old white men,” he said. “We’ve got to change that.”

“There’s always more voices that could have been there, but we had researchers, ethics experts, [and] legal experts. People from the government, from NASA, from the Air Force, astronauts, [and] people from the private companies. We had as many voices in the room to make sure that this was informed from a variety of perspectives.”

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