In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Timiebi Aganaba, a professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and a scholar of space governance. Reflecting on what she sees as a new era in space travel, Aganaba describes the current state of space programs—which are now funded by governments, companies, and even wealthy private individuals. Aganaba contends that this “democratization of space” has created unique governance challenges, such as the proliferation of satellites that block the sky and questions about who will benefit from any resources discovered beyond Earth.
Listen to the Podcast
- Is space truly accessible to everybody?: “This mantra of space for the benefit of all humanity has been around for a long time, but it’s had a lot of challenges, because the reality is—is space actually open for all? At the end of the day, we now have opened up to the private sector, to developing countries, and to universities, but the military is still one of the most significant forces in space, and [space] is seen as a domain for fighting and competition.” (15:38)
- Lessons from Richard Branson’s spaceflight: “People would say that [space travel] is an activity for the ultrarich, and that there are so many more pressing and important things to do on Earth. But I think the same thing was said about the Wright brothers, who developed aviation back in the 1900s … Maybe we’re seeing the same thing right now with space, whereby we’re just talking about something that starts off for the rich, but really, it could revolutionize what we can actually do and galvanize a new generation of innovation.” (18:15)
- Broadening our notions of what space travel can look like: “I would tell people that they should think of alternate visions of the future—especially space people who love to talk about Star Trek and Star Wars—because most people around the world haven’t grown up on that version of science fiction. I think science fiction should probably be broadened so that different people can imagine themselves in the future.” (25:59)
Top of the Stack
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today we talk with Timiebi Aganaba, assistant professor at the Arizona State University (ASU) School for the Future of Innovation in Society, with a courtesy appointment at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. Timiebi has worked on a fascinating array of space issues on multiple continents. And today, we have an extremely wide-ranging conversation about that work and its implications. I'll ask her about broad notions of space and society, the history, current status, and future of space governance, the Biden administration's steps on space policy, Richard Branson, and even Afrofuturist and African futurist music and art. This conversation was really fun. Stay with us.
Okay, Timiebi Aganaba from Arizona State University. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Timiebi Aganaba: It's my pleasure.
Daniel Raimi: So Timi, we're going to talk today about space governance and your work on space governance in a variety of contexts. But we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on natural resource issues, or in this case space resource issues. So what drew you into this field?
Timiebi Aganaba: So I have a long backstory, but the long and short of it is basically that I went to law school in Nigeria. And when you graduate, you have to do a year of service for the government, for the country. I was posted to the Nigerian Space Agency as one of the first hires in legal affairs and international cooperation. One of the first tasks I had to do was research about looking at environmental liability regimes in areas beyond national jurisdiction and for ultra-hazardous activities, such as maritime transportation of oil and nuclear power generation, and look at how those liability regimes compared to the space liability regimes for the issue of space debris. So 14 years ago I first started taking an environmental lens to space activities. Fast forward a few years later, I did my masters on that same topic. Then I did my postdoctoral fellowship on climate change law and looked at the role of satellite technology and space technologies in the fight against climate change. So I've had lots of different experiences ranging over a really long time, and it's just fascinating that it's all come together now, because the trend is towards space sustainability. So I think the environmental lens really highlights the topic really well.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that is so interesting. I could ask you hours worth of questions about the differences between liability for oil transport and space debris. That's such a fascinating idea. As much as I want to get diverted and ask you questions about that, I'd like to start us off with a couple of big picture questions. One of them comes from a TEDx Talk that I watched that you gave a few years ago at ASU, where you started by asking the audience to close their eyes and picture what came to their mind when you said the words “space” and “society.” So I thought it would be cool to ask you that question. What comes to your mind's eye when you hear those two words?
Timiebi Aganaba: It's really interesting because if you try and Google that, you wouldn't really find much. My title at Arizona State University is actually Professor of Space in Society. I've really had some time to think about those two words put together. What does it actually mean, and what images come to mind? The first thing that always comes to mind for me is that Earthrise picture that was taken by William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission, whereby they took this picture of the earth rising from the moon's surface. That picture is basically attributed to starting the environmental movement, because it was the first time we really saw the fragility of Earth. We really saw that Earth is just this one bubble that we have to be so careful and conscious about. When I think of that image, then it really connects us because it means that we are just one planet.
We only have one planet that we can take care of, and that image really solidified that and got it into the minds of everyone. That's really what I think of when I think of space in society. Of course, there are all these other images that come to mind based on science fiction, like space settlements and seeing communities up in space. We're still pretty far from there, but those discussions are getting more and more mainstream, especially as Elon Musk is saying that he wants to take people to Mars by the end of this decade. But I think at the end of the day, that connection between space and society is essentially saying, "what is the role of the individual? How do we connect all these big visions that we have to the societal issues that are going on, especially with space not being too far away or surreal anymore?"
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting. I think we're going to touch on some more of those topics over the next 25 minutes or so, as we keep talking. One more background question, which I again thought was fascinating about your background. You mentioned that you started your work on space in the Nigerian government, and it might be surprising to some people that Nigeria has a space program or that other countries—including ones that might have relatively low per capita income—have space programs. Can you just give us some background on the motivations for why countries like Nigeria or other smaller nations invest in space research and technology and exploration?
Timiebi Aganaba: So it's really fascinating. During my Ph.D. in Canada, I worked in a space consulting company and of the things that I had to do was track the global budget for space. What were different countries spending on space research? We were tracking over 80 countries, and it was fascinating to see that the majority of those countries are actually developing countries. The budgets really range from, of course, the United States spending $40 billion a year on space, right down to a country like the Philippines spending $10 million. Each of those countries are calling themselves space countries. So it's interesting because there's no one definition of what it means to be a space actor. There are different capacities and there are different levels with which people can come in. The big actors like the United States of course have end-to-end capabilities, such that they can independently run their space programs.
But now that we have this miniaturization, and all the innovations that have come which are making space cheaper, people can engage in these activities for different purposes like sustainable development. Countries might want to be able to have more control over monitoring their borders or their fisheries, or perhaps—like Nigeria—they realized that they needed independence for their telecommunications and their internet access, and it didn't make sense that Africa didn't have its own capacity in that domain. I think just like the big players also saw space as something related to national prestige and security, developing countries have the same mindset. It's just that they're more focused on how this benefits their immediate needs. With all the trends that we're talking about with sustainable development goals and the role of different technologies in helping countries reach that, they’re seeing that space has a role to play.
Some issues are extremely reliant on space programs. For climate change, we know that of the 52 essential climate variables—that is the measurements that we use to detect climate change—half can only be measured from space. So these countries are starting to say we need to have our own data sources. We need to have our own independence. Also, maybe this is going to inspire our population to think more about science and technology. So prestige is always there of course. Space is like a club, and being a space actor shows a certain level of development, but I think it's not as much of a vanity project as it used to be. Today, you have to really demonstrate every dollar that you get from space. You have to get returns on that. It's not like back in the Apollo days where the goal was basically to win the space race, at all costs, as soon as possible. You have to really make the case for space today. And that's what these countries are trying to do.
Daniel Raimi: That makes a lot of sense and it's really fascinating. One of the items you just touched on is how things have changed over time as we transitioned from the space race to something that looks very different today, where we look across the landscape of different countries that are active in space. The European Space Agency has referred to four major phases of space research and exploration over time. And I thought it would be really helpful if you could give us an understanding of what those four phases have been and maybe describe them to us a little bit.
Timiebi Aganaba: There's been different characterizations about the eras of space. So in the American context, they usually talk about two eras of space, Space 1.0 and Space 2.0, but the European Space Agency broke it down into four eras. Basically the first era of space, Space 1.0, can be considered the early study of astronomy and even astrology. We've had this for a very, very long time, but Space 2.0 came about with spacefaring nations engaging in the space race, and that led to the Apollo moon landing. So that was in the 1960s, in the height of the Cold War. The third era, which is Space 3.0, came about with the conception of the International Space Station, which showed that we understood and valued space as the next frontier for cooperation and exploitation. They now say that we're in the Space 4.0 era, which is a time when space is evolving from being the preserve of governments of a few spacefaring nations to a situation in which there are an increased number of diverse actors around the world, including private companies, working with academia, industry, and individual citizens on space-related projects.
So Space 4.0 represents the evolution of the space sector into this new era characterized by this new playing field. It's actually unfolding through the interactions between different actors. What's really fascinating about the Oxford Space Initiative is that it’s taking an ecosystem framework approach to analyzing the Space 4.0 era. It’s saying that it's really important to explore the diverse types of organizations, firms and agencies and their interdependencies, to explore what collaborations and partnerships look like and, to appreciate the shifts of purposes of different stakeholders.
That is how it's been characterized so far, but I and a couple of people who are interested in space ethics and space governance, actually say that we are coming or emerging into the Space 5.0 era, which is essentially the space ethics and governance era. Here, we're really talking about the implications of the diversification that we see in the Space 4.0 era, about the plurality and diversity of experiences. Who has been affected? Who have been the actors involved? All those different areas have been driven by technological change, but really it's now the social dimensions that will drive the future of space. It's kind of like when we first had cars or airplanes or anything like that. At the beginning, it was all technological, but when it diversified and everybody could have that, you now had to start thinking about, "okay, what does liability look like? Who gets hurt or who is affected by these technological changes?" So I would say that when now approaching the Space 5.0 era, but I'm probably one of the few people that's saying that. Most people are still talking about the Space 4.0 era.
Daniel Raimi: To get maybe a little bit more flavor of that Space 4.0, just before we start talking more about some 5.0 issues over the next few minutes, my naive assumption is that the 4.0 era is sort of enabled by lower barriers to entry, essentially lower costs for deploying certain technologies. This makes me wonder, when you talked about the government of the Philippines having a budget of $10 million per year for space exploration, what are the kinds of services and activities that governments or private actors can take advantage of for those relatively low cost entry points?
Timiebi Aganaba: So I mean those low entry points are basically focused on capacity building, things like working on astronomy because that's focused on the ground and you just need telescopes and things like that. Now that we've had miniaturization and off-the-shelf technology, universities can build CubeSats for an order of magnitude lower costs than they used to be able to. Now with these multiple launches that you can get rideshares on, you can easily get your cheap asset up into space. Think these lower end missions are basically doing that. They’re using off-the-shelf technology and trying to tinker around and figure out what you can do. Then of course data analytics is a big part of it. So how do we spur the downstream economy, so it’s not so much just about having assets in space, but asking, once the assets are there, “how would you utilize the data and create industry and create innovations out of that data?”
The point is that sometimes it feels like you need an asset in space to be an actual space actor and to be part of the governance discussions, for instance. But a lot of the work around applications is really important because we do have a lot of assets up in space right now. And the question is, what do we do and how do we leverage all the things that we already have? That's what the lower end budgets are basically focused on. That's what a lot of the entrepreneurial work and innovations are around, leveraging that data and creating new products and services out of them.
Daniel Raimi: I love the idea that you can get a rideshare to space. I guess we're recording on July 14th and Richard Branson just did a space flight into lower earth orbit. I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong, Timi. But yeah, there’s now the idea that this is getting more and more possible for maybe not the ordinary person at this point, but for individuals and relatively small organizations to launch a CubeSat as part of a mission up on a rocket.
Timiebi Aganaba: But of course, it's interesting because this mantra of space for the benefit of all humanity has been around for a long time, but it's had a lot of challenges because the reality is, is space actually open for all? At the end of the day, we now have opened up to the private sector, to developing countries, and to universities, but the military is still one of the most significant forces in space, and is seen as a domain for fighting and competition. I mean, space forces have been created to protect those assets. So it's still a contested environment, which essentially makes it challenging because, even though people call it the Wild West, it's really only the powerful that can do whatever they want. The rest of the people actually have a lot of constraints on what they can actually do. So is space really for all? Well, that's the goal, as we see with this Richard Branson flight, it's really interesting if you see the way the press has basically characterized it as an ego trip of billionaires. So that's very far from saying that this is something that is for the benefit of humanity, if people think it's just an ego trip.
Daniel Raimi: Well, I'm very curious, deviating from our current line of questioning, but I'm really curious how you see a trip like that. And when you see headlines about maybe this is a big ego trip from a billionaire, do you see it that way? Or what do you think about it?
Timiebi Aganaba: Absolutely not. I mean Richard Branson's flight, this flight was 17 years in the making and really, if you see the inspirational aspect to it then this was a tenacious goal. This was an innovation. I think back to when the XPRIZE was won, when Richard Branson first started doing this, it was revolutionary to be able to use the same vehicle to travel to space. I think it was within two weeks of each other. So it really goes to show what the possibilities are and what innovation can actually do. So I find it inspiring, but I understand people saying these flights are costing $250,000 a pop to spend two minutes up in weightlessness. There are a lot of competing priorities. For Richard Branson's flight, there was an auction to go up with him and that flight cost $28 million.
So definitely, people would say that is an activity for the ultrarich, and that there are so many more pressing and important things to do on earth. But I think the same thing was said about the Wright brothers, who developed aviation back in the 1900s. I think even the New York Times probably poo-pooed what they did and essentially said, "this is not important, and this is not going to do anything." But look at how our society has been revolutionized by air transport. Maybe we're seeing the same thing right now with space, whereby we're just talking about space tourism and we're talking about something that starts off for the rich, but really it could revolutionize what we can actually do and galvanize a new generation of innovation.
Daniel Raimi: I mean it's not so different from so many technologies that emerge as kind of playthings of certain people. I'm thinking about cellphones in cars. Back in the day, I had a wealthy friend who had a cellphone in their car and we all thought it was the craziest, coolest thing. And now it's the most mundane thing that there could be.
Timiebi Aganaba: Exactly, exactly.
Daniel Raimi: So we've been talking mostly about sort of Space 4.0 concepts, but you mentioned earlier this idea of Space 5.0, which I take to mean—and you'll certainly elaborate on it—but wrestling with some of the societal and legal and ethical challenges associated with what you might call the democratization of space, I guess that's what we were just talking about. So when you think about this new era of space that we may be entering into, what are some of the biggest challenges that you've seen or that you expect to see with all these new players being involved?
Timiebi Aganaba: I mean the challenge of democratization is that suddenly, you have to think about inclusion, and you have to think about who should be at the table for decisionmaking. The complexity with decisionmaking for space is that you have different capacities. Not everyone has the capacity to be able to engage. You have to find this balance of saying “yes, we're open, but at the same time, decisions have to be made.” At the beginning of space governance, when the space laws were developed in the 1950s and 1960s, there were only 2 major actors and maybe 20 countries sitting around the table to develop the space law treaties that were developed. Now you have over 110 signatories to the Outer Space Treaty, and you have over 90 members of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space at the United Nations.
They're basically politically gridlocked. Even though we have these utopian notions of space from shows like Star Trek, and these visions of us living together and working in space, people forget that really it's just a reflection of the geopolitics on earth. We have to be more realist in our thinking: this is a new era where there are a lot of things at stake. For instance, one of the big governance topics is what we do about space resources. The issue is that for instance, if we find water on the moon, we can break that down into hydrogen and oxygen and the hydrogen can be used for fuel and the oxygen can be used to breathe. If mankind is really going to become a multi-planetary species and we're going to be living and working in space, those resources are going to be limited.
The question of ownership now comes up: to whom do they belong when this is supposed to be something that belongs to all of humanity? The way human beings act is first come first serve, which means it's always going to be the rich and powerful who are going to be the first people that get there and get those resources. So we have this big issue now with this democratization. It's here, but how are you going to actually implement that from a governance standpoint? Secondly, when we look at the issue of environmentalism here on earth and how unparalleled growth has basically degraded our environment, are we going to take that same mentality to space? The space domain is not really seen as an environment to be protected or that has intrinsic value in itself. One of the other space governance issues we really have to think about is, how are we going to take sustainable development principles into the development of the space domain?
Daniel Raimi: There’s so many interesting topics there, and I would just point listeners to your body of work, and we'll have a link to your webpage in the show notes, as well as links to some previous conversations we've had on the show. We had Danielle Wood from Massachusetts Institute of Technology a few months ago, and we also had Alex Gilbert from the Colorado School of Mines talking about some of these same space resource management issues, and they're just so fascinating. So we're touching on all sorts of things in this conversation. I want to take us into a completely different direction now, which is a question that goes back to my college days. When I was in college at Wesleyan University, I studied music with a composer named Anthony Braxton, who's a very avant-garde composer with some pretty far out stuff. He was often referred to as an Afrofuturist. So for example, one of his well-known pieces was written for four orchestras on four different planets. There are other examples of Afrofuturist artists; George Clinton is maybe one of the best known ones. Sun Ra is another well known one. I'm just really curious to ask you about your reflections on the role that African and African-American artists have played in just developing the concept and the notion of space, whether for Africans or for the African diaspora.
Timiebi Aganaba: This is such a fascinating question, and I really only came across this term Afrofuturism when I moved to the United States. I came here from Canada. I'd never heard of this concept. The interesting thing is I started seeing the division between Afrofuturism and African futurism. The distinction here is that Afrofuturism, even though it's talking about the Black experience and putting the Black race into visions of the future, still has a very Western centralization. So it still centers Western ideals. So I really relate to this concept of African futurism, which is basically looking at the others outside of the West and what it means to really place yourself in the future when you're not central to making those visions. It's really fascinating. At Arizona State University, we just hired one of the leading thinkers in African futurism.
I don't know if you've heard of Nnedi Okorafor, but she just joined the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University. So we're really excited about taking these concepts of alternate futures and what they look like and bringing in the perspective of the other and saying that by showing different visions of the future in some way that you would never expect people to be. That way, it will be easier to imagine us being able to actually work together in the present because we can actually put different people in our imaginaries. Since I've been here in America, with everything that happened with Black Panther and the social unrest and all the movements that we've had, it's really put front and center, in this Space 5.0 era, the need to be inclusive and the need to let everyone be able to imagine what the future could look like for them. I would tell people that they should think of alternate visions of the future—especially space people who love to talk about Star Trek and Star Wars—because most people around the world haven't grown up on that version of science fiction. I think science fiction should probably be broadened so that different people can imagine themselves in the future.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that is so cool. I would love to learn more about the incoming professor that you mentioned, and also the notion of African futurism. There's one artist that I know of named Mamman Sani, who is an organist from Ghana and has a lot of space-themed musical work, but he's the only one that comes immediately to mind.
Timiebi Aganaba: It's interesting because I was watching a lot of these videos about how in pop culture, artists such as Missy Elliott and Janelle Monae really have used these sci-fi concepts in hip hop. They’ve basically used them to re-imagine what being, say, a Black woman who is powerful and who can influence the future actually looks like, and space is really a concept that is used to denote that. It's really interesting and fascinating because the Black woman is really the last person that you think of when you think about space and when you think of all these sci-fi things, so them centering that concept and using art and space to make it a very visual feature is really exciting and inspiring.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, I totally agree. It actually makes me think of the recent HBO miniseries Watchmen, in which Regina King plays a central role in a very sci-fi world. I won't give away the ending, but there is a significant turn of events at the end that very much plays into what we're talking about right now. So just one more question to me before we go to our Top of the Stack segment, which is very much moving from the sublime to the mundane. When you look at the Biden administration, the early months of the Biden administration, are there any major early steps that you've seen out of the administration that you think are particularly interesting that you would want to highlight for our listeners?
Timiebi Aganaba: I think what we've seen early on is not moving too far from what the Trump administration did. The Trump administration, for all its controversy, really did a lot in the space world. It was very significant, all the initiatives that the administration put in place. So it's really just seeing how much of those initiatives are going to bear fruit moving forwards. It's clear that one of the areas that wasn't given that much credence under the Trump administration was climate science and earth science work. In this new administration, obviously that is going to be a priority. Because climate change is one of the big ticket agenda items of the Biden administration, I think we're going to see a lot more with respect to that.
It's very interesting that the Space Council is still in existence. That's something that Trump brought in and I think is really important because we do need these inter-agency processes. For too long, different people have operated in silos. People are polarized in the things that they think are important about space. So ensuring that we have this high-level department—I think it's the vice president that would be leading that—is super important to ensure that happens. With respect to some of the politically motivated timelines that the Trump administration had, such as the Artemis Program, which is the next moon landing of humans taking the first woman and the next man to space, that was supposed to be by 2024, and that was a very rushed timeline. We're going to see in this new administration that we're not going to meet that timeline and things are going to be slowed down a little bit, which is probably a good thing because we have so many issues right now from a governance standpoint. There are so many different perspectives internationally that it's probably a good idea that we don't take a [space] race mentality and really slow down and think about how can we evolve the governance regime in a way that is inclusive and internationally focused, rather than taking the very nationalistic perspective the Trump administration took.
So I'm hoping that moving forward, while the United States is still going to look to be a leader, especially in areas such as space situational awareness and space traffic management, we will say that we should not just have a nationalistic governance approach, but carry along the international community.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes a bunch of sense, and definitely dovetails with many of the issues we've talked about today in the emerging space governance challenges and opportunities that we've got ahead of us. So Timiebi Aganaba, thank you again so much for joining us today on the show. This has been just a really fun, fascinating conversation. And now we're going to close it out with our last question, our Top of the Stack question, asking you to recommend something that you've read or watched or heard, even if it's tangentially related to our subject matter. And I'll just start by reiterating my musical recommendations for the day, which are Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, and Mamman Sani, three really amazing, really different artists exploring different notions of the future and space in their work. Some of it's pretty wild, but some of it is also pretty great. So I hope if you haven't checked out those artists before, that you'll do so. But how about you, Timi? What's on the top of your stack?
Timiebi Aganaba: So I just was sent a book called Losing the Sky by professor Andy Lawrence, who's based in the United Kingdom. I don't know if your audience knows about this issue that's going on right now about mega-constellations. A lot of the Space 4.0 era is driven by the launching of thousands of miniature satellites for telecommunications purposes. The astronomy community is up in arms about this, because they believe that we're losing the right to the night sky since you can now see all these thousands of satellites and we no longer have dark skies. By the end of the decade, it's expected that there's going to be over 100,000 satellites launched. So really, they're saying that this basic human right to a dark sky is being lost, but there's a fight between that and the right to internet access, because, from a sustainable development standpoint, people believe that everyone should have internet access.
So we have these two competing uses of space. Of course, there's no hierarchy in the use of space. So how do we balance these competing interests and decide how these various actors should operate in space? I think this just symbolizes the problem we have in space governance now with this multiplicity of actors, the fact that we now have to balance interests, and we now have to talk more and bring people to the table. So this book Losing the Sky really puts an astronomer's perspective as to why unparalleled growth of satellites may not be for the benefit of humanity, even though the usage seems to be something that is beneficial. So that's a really interesting read for anyone who's interested in a current issue of space governance.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that is absolutely fascinating, just like pretty much everything else that we've talked about today. So once again, Timi Aganaba from Arizona State University, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Timiebi Aganaba: You're very welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
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