Katrin Nyman-Metcalf – “It’s Not in Private Actors’ Interest to Keep the Cold War from Starting Again”

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Nov 07, 2016
by Chris Hamill-Stewart
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Katrin Nyman-Metcalf – “It’s Not in Private Actors’ Interest to Keep the Cold War from Starting Again”

Representative of Estonia to the International Relations Committee of the European Space Agency discusses the current state of space law, changes happening and the future Katrin Nyman-Metcalf at the session Future of Public Service: Program Strategy Meeting

Katrin Nyman-Metcalf, who participated in the Salzburg Global Seminar session Future of Public Service: Program Strategy Meeting, has a long-running fascination with space law. She is considered to be a leading expert in Estonia and represents the country on panels regarding the law of outer space and international relations.

Nyman-Metcalf is the Chair of Law and Technology at Estonia’s Tallinn University of Technology, as well as the representative of Estonia to the International Relations Committee of the European Space Agency. Her long-completed Ph.D. thesis tackled law in outer space, the use of resources and whom they belong to, and it remains relevant today. “To have a thesis that is 17 years old and still be topical is wonderful,” she says. However, this does reveal some uncertainties in the field: “These profound questions of what you can do in space haven’t been solved.”

Until recently, space had solely been a matter of international cooperation, for example, in the area of satellites: “They are so incredibly important now everything relies on it and their use is commonplace,” explains Nyman-Metcalf. “It’s becoming normal to deal with, and is very much an area of international cooperation.”

However, as Nyman-Metcalf adds: “There is a real danger that this framework of agreement and...common interest is being eroded... When you look up you see the same stars as I see when I’m doing it in Australia: it’s totally impractical to conceive of anything else than an international global framework.”

A further danger Nyman-Metcalf sees is in the future of extracting resources from space, opening a whole new international issue. The US has recently passed a law on the use of space resources – so too has the much smaller country of Luxembourg. This signals that the era of international cooperation by consent is in decline.

Despite these state-level developments, Nyman-Metcalf sees many of the potential issues coming from the private, not public sectors: “The interests that are pushing things in space are no longer these governments that come together and agree… even with the Soviet Union and the US, they could agree to share results of research.”

“Private actors – it’s not in their interest to keep the Cold War from starting again,” Nyman-Metcalf worries: “They’ll think differently. There’s much more pressure from private firms who prioritize their own profits.” Companies such as Planetary Resources exemplify the mindset of these private industries. They claim “the local resources of space will enable economic growth in the same way new resource frontiers have been explored and developed here on Earth.” Historically, the pursuit of new resource frontiers has not always been a peaceful or inclusive process.

The implication is that these firms are likely to disregard international cooperation agreements to serve their own profits. They are more likely to jeopardize the fragile cooperation because they have no obligation or duty to maintain it, and as Planetary Resources show, their priority is their economic growth.

Time will tell whether the current status quo of international cooperation will hold strong as private industries embark on their own space ventures and governments begin to consider ownership of space. One thing is clear though: the future of space is looking increasingly “up in the air.”


Katrin Nyman-Metcalf was a participant at the Salzburg Global session Future of Public Service: Program Strategy Meeting. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/568