Like The Hub?
Join our community.

Michael Byers and Aaron Boley: From Elon Musk to Russia, the race to own outer space is heating up


As part of a paid partnership, this month The Hub will feature excerpts from this year’s five shortlisted books for the Donner Prize, awarded to the best public policy book in Canada. Our podcast Hub Dialogues will also feature interviews with the authors. The winning title will be awarded $60,000 by The Donner Canadian Foundation on May 8th.

The following is an excerpt from Who Owns Outer Space? International Law, Astrophysics, and the Sustainable Development of Space (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

The asteroid 101955 Bennu is just a pile of rubble, weakly held together by its own gravity, the remnants of a catastrophic event that occurred a billion years ago. But Bennu is also a bearer of both life and death, containing clues about the origins of life on Earth while, at the same time, having the potential to destroy humanity. For over time, the agencies of physics and chance have brought the 500-metre-wide asteroid onto an orbit very near to Earth.

A robotic spacecraft named OSIRIS-REx set out in September 2016 to make contact with Bennu. After many rehearsals, flying close to Bennu each time, the spacecraft made a brief landing—a “touch-and-go” that enabled it to collect a sample from the asteroid’s surface. Scientists will spend decades analysing the 120 grams of material, which include amino acids, the building blocks of life.

The OSIRIS-REx mission, however, is about more than science. NASA readily admits that the visit to Bennu is a prelude for possible mining operations, with governments and private companies hoping to extract water from asteroids to make rocket fuel—thus enabling further space exploration and, perhaps, an off-Earth economy. But some states oppose these plans, arguing that space mining, were it to happen, would be illegal in the absence of a widely agreed multilateral regime. They point to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits “national appropriation” and declares the exploration and use of space to be “the province of all [hu]mankind.” There are also reasons to worry that space mining, if done without adequate oversight, could create risks—including the low probability, high-consequence risk of an asteroid being inadvertently redirected onto an Earth impact trajectory.

A little Pomeranian called Saba missed out on the chance to join Sharon and Mark Hagle on the first of their four planned flights to space, though Blue Origin did offer the dog a consolation prize—a specially fitted flight suit! As for the Hagles, they already have tickets for Virgin Galactic and are now in talks with SpaceX. Travelling to space is an “extraordinary” experience for the Florida-based couple, whose previous adventures included swimming with whales and abseiling into caves. “My thought is you go, I go,” Sharon said of her 73-year-old property developer husband. “Mark has always taken me out of my comfort zone.”

More and more of the world’s ultra-rich are travelling to space as tourists on short sub-orbital flights or much longer orbital flights, with increasing numbers going to the International Space Station. Trips around the Moon might also become a reality soon. Hollywood, unsatisfied with the visual effects provided by CGI or parabolic flights on aeroplanes, is right behind them, with Tom Cruise expected to fly to the International Space Station for a film shoot soon. It is all great fun, of course, unless one considers the environmental impacts.

The Soviet spy satellite Kosmos 1408, launched in 1982, ran out of propellant decades ago and became just another piece of Space junk…until it found a new purpose in life. It was chosen as a target for a powerful military to demonstrate a capability that everyone already knew it possessed—to destroy a satellite at will.

A ground-launched missile struck the 1,750 kg satellite at a relative speed of at least 20,000 kilometres per hour, creating a huge explosion and, at the same time, more than a thousand pieces of high-velocity space debris large enough to be tracked by ground-based radar. Tens of thousands of smaller but still potentially lethal pieces were also undoubtedly created, many of them on elliptical orbits that cross the orbits of thousands of operational satellites, as well as the International Space Station and China’s new Tiangong Space Station. Immediately after the explosion, astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts retreated into the shelter of their capsules, which are hardened for atmospheric re-entry, and closed the hatches while the highest concentrations of debris flew by. 

That was not the end of the story, however. Some of the debris will remain in orbit for many years, posing an ongoing threat to all satellites, including many operational satellites belonging to Russia itself, the state that took this dangerous and completely unnecessary action.

The Milky Way glows above the 6856 meters tall Bhagirathi peaks as seen from Tapovan, at an altitude of 4500 meters in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, Friday, May 10, 2019. Altaf Qadri/AP Photo.

SpaceX recently moved the bulk of its operations from California to Texas, attracted by the Lone Star State’s low taxes and minimal regulations. The move may also have contained an implicit threat to the U.S. government: the now-dominant space actor could up stakes again, but next time to another country. Luxembourg, a well-established tax haven, would be an obvious place to incorporate. Although a tiny European country, it provides a friendly home for two of the world’s largest operators of communications satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), and, in 2017, adopted legislation to facilitate commercial space mining. SpaceX, meanwhile, has already acquired two large oil-drilling platforms that could be used to allow launches, quite literally, offshore. 

Having launched more than 5,000 satellites since 2019, SpaceX now controls large swaths of Earth’s most desirable orbits. Should one company, or indeed any actor, be allowed to use the most valuable parts of low Earth orbit (LEO) to such an extent that its use effectively excludes other actors from operating there safely? At what point does SpaceX exceed the carrying capacity of LEO and degrade spaceflight safety for everyone?

Tighter regulations are coming. But those regulations will be the result of negotiations, and companies, knowing this, are now working to establish the strongest possible negotiating positions. The emergence of Luxembourg and other “flag-of-convenience” states in the space domain will certainly help those who seek to minimise regulation. SpaceX only exists because of NASA contracts provided to it when it was a fragile start-up. It still relies on NASA and U.S. Space Force contracts for revenue, but the company is growing ever more powerful, launching thousands of satellites each year and planning missions to both the Moon and Mars. At some point, governments may find that they are negotiating with a leviathan that is both able and willing to transcend all boundaries.

Kaveh Shahrooz: The Queen’s Park keffiyeh kerfuffle proves the wisdom of keeping political symbols out of the legislature


There is a showdown brewing in Ontario’s provincial parliament. The battle may be over a small piece of patterned cloth, but the principles at play are grand: free expression, cultural rights, and, most importantly, whether our relentless partisan divide leaves any room for reasoned political debate.

To recap, in mid-April, amid the Israel-Hamas war, Queen’s Park speaker Ted Arnott decided to ban the keffiyeh, the traditional patterned headdress worn by Arab people across the Middle East, from the Ontario legislature. Premier Doug Ford and the other party leaders all opposed the ban, but the effort to overturn the speaker’s order failed when a Progressive Conservative MPP refused to vote in favour of the unanimous consent motion. Days later, a second such motion failed again. And late last week, independent MPP Sarah Jama (previously of the NDP before being expelled from that caucus for her anti-Israel statements immediately after October 7th) was banned from the chamber for her refusal to remove the keffiyeh. The Ontario NDP leader, Marit Stiles, now says that if the premier does not push for a reversal of the keffiyeh ban, the NDP caucus will defy the rules.

While the politicking plays out in Queen’s Park, the culture warriors have taken to their usual corners and have begun to make the expected arguments. 

Speaker Arnott reached his decision on the basis that “members’ attire” bearing “ logos, symbols, slogans, and other political messaging are not permitted,” a ban that has a long history in Ontario’s legislature. Naturally, those opposed to his decision then attempted to frame the keffiyeh as something other than political.  

The federal Justice Minister Arif Virani took to X soon after the speaker’s decision and wrote “the [keffiyeh] is an important cultural symbol” and that wearing it indicates “pride in one’s heritage.” Former Amnesty International Canada president Alex Neve called the cloth an “iconic embodiment of Palestinian culture and identity,” thus emphasizing its cultural role. And Stiles linked the ban to “anti-Palestinian racism, hate, and division.” 

The problem with this position is that it rings patently false to anyone with eyes, ears, and a cursory understanding of symbols. It is hard to deny that the explosion in the wearing of keffiyehs in North America in recent months correlates directly with growing anti-Israel protests. And the symbol is not being solely worn by those of Palestinian or Arab descent. (Just do a simple Google image search to see how many non-Arab students on campus encampments are sporting the keffiyeh.) Whatever its meaning at other times in history, wearing the keffiyeh in 2024 in Canada is not like wearing a lederhosen or a sari. 

In fact, those taking this absurd position themselves subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) concede the point. Neve, for example, writes that the Queen’s Park ban was put in place because the keffiyeh has become meaningful “to millions and millions of people in the desperate struggle to stand up for the survival of the Palestinian people and their culture.” You may agree or disagree with him that the survival of Palestinians and their culture is at stake, but “the desperate struggle to stand up” for those things sure sounds like a political endeavour. Jama drops the pretense altogether, saying “This is a political issue, my job is to be political, and so I will continue to wear this garment.” 

The other side of the debate, too, engages in discourse that gives off more heat than light. In a piece that represents much of the anti-keffiyeh position, Rahim Mohamed writes in the National Post that the kaffiyeh has an “unshakable association with Palestinian political violence,” suggesting that the “fishnet pattern scarf favoured by protesters is synonymous with militant Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.”  

This argument is overwrought. Whatever the keffiyeh’s political meaning, it is not solely a political symbol. While it may not be the purely cultural symbol Minister Virani and others claim, it has a strong cultural component. Worn for practical reasons by Bedouins, the wearing of it predates the Palestine-Israel conflict which arose in the early part of the 20th century. And, surely, it has political and cultural associations beyond violence and Arafat. It was, for example, a symbol of the Palestinian working class in the 1800s who preferred it to the brimless Ottoman fez favoured by the upper class.   

But the key error in Mohamed’s argument is that, in trying to score a point, he subtly concedes something critical: that the problem with the keffiyeh in the legislature isn’t that it promotes bad politics, but any politics at all.

The more principled reason to oppose the keffiyeh in the legislature is that in a liberal democratic society, our deliberative institutions should strive for more reasoned, civil debate. The introduction of signs and symbols in our law-making institutions diminishes and coarsens the public discourse at precisely the moment we can least afford it.     

Regrettably, the space for reasoned debate in our society is shrinking alongside the space for non-political civic life. Every realm of public life is now infused with tribal political symbols. It is to our great detriment, and a sign of the ill health of our polity, that all things, from our beer and chicken sandwiches to the sports and comedy we watch, have become political battlegrounds. 

In this climate, it is all more important that we preserve institutions that foster articulate, respectful, pluralistic political debate. 

A Pro-Palestinian supporter waves a Palestinian keffiyeh as police look on following a demonstration in Montreal, Sunday, May 16, 2021. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

The institutions designed for this purpose have been weakened lately. Our universities, for example, have increasingly taken on institutional political positions, undermining their role as a forum for rigorous intellectual inquiry. Our public broadcaster is increasingly seen by the Canadian public as having a clear ideological bias. Even the office of the governor general has not been spared, having recently hosted an event that critics allege promoted the Trudeau government’s controversial Online Harms Bill.

The legislature holds a unique place in our polity and should aspire to more. While it should serve as the forum for political disagreement and debate, it should not itself be seen as partisan. And it should elevate our public discourse, instead of becoming yet another force that reduces nuanced topics to signs, pins, stickers, and placards. 

Opposing the keffiyeh for its alleged bad meaning naturally draws out the battle over that meaning, and invites another battle over the freedom of expression. It also invites future fights about the meaning of every other symbol that MPPs will hereinafter try to bring into the legislature. Is the Ukraine pin a good or bad symbol? The Black Lives Matter badge? What about the MAGA hat? Open this door just a little and we will be mired in a thousand battles about a thousand causes, logos, and signs.

The solution, then, is not to engage in a futile line-drawing exercise which will leave many stakeholders unhappy much of the time. Instead, it is to maintain the existing nearly blanket ban on political symbols. (I say “nearly blanket” because symbols like the Remembrance Day poppy are now permitted at Queen’s Park. But even that required a special exemption.) The ban avoids the problem altogether, allowing our core deliberative body to remain a place for reason above passion. 

We will likely never agree on the precise meaning of the keffiyeh (though we should at least strive to be honest in its interpretation; something the “it’s just a cultural symbol” crowd is not doing.) 

But we should agree that some corners of our society should be reserved for deliberation and debate instead of cheap appeals to emotion and tribalism. What better place for that than Queen’s Park?